Inside Nevada’s Pistol Offense, Pt. 3

When you’re talking about gap-style runs in football today, you usually start with power and counter plays.  Power plays, roughly speaking, feature a combination of down-blocking and pulling linemen to open holes.  Counters are generally subtly changed power plays that have the quarterback and tailback make a deceptive handoff motion and first step to get the defense moving in the wrong direction.  The QB makes a long, wrapping handoff from backside to playside, usually with the halfback selling the fake with a backside jab-step before taking off in the right direction.  Offensive linemen either block down to the backside or pull to kick-out or seal-off linebackers.

Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams in the 80’s were probably responsible for getting the ball rolling on the modern power/counter game, and Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins teams built it into one of the best known attacks in football.  The power/counter game seems to get an added bonus from being the pistol formation because the tailback isn’t visible anyway; instead of making a jab step, the runner can get playside movement to better see the blocking develop and get to the line of scrimmage faster.

Nevada’s “horn” play is variation of this concept, and just might be the fastest counter play in football.  It’s definitely been talked to death in terms of execution, though I’ll hit the highlights here and focus a little more on how it works with Nevada’s zone scheme.  It’s a bit of a mash-up play, as are most of today’s interesting ideas in the run game.  Here’s how Nevada drew it up for American Football Monthly back in 2008.

Textbook horn play.

It has hints of single-wing/Wing-T play with the way immediate blockers angle towards the center, wedge-style.  Most of the playside blocks are “fold” blocks where an exterior lineman blocks down on a defender on the line of scrimmage, while the offensive lineman to the inside loops around the block to pick up defenders (usually linebackers) away from the line.  The backside is blocked just like the backside on a zone run, with the lineman bucket-stepping towards the play and going for cut blocks on anyone they can’t engage with their hands.

When Nevada coaches talked with AFM, they described the center/guard team as a pure fold block, with the center trying to reach the linebacker in front of him.  It doesn’t always work out that way.  Here’s another example of the horn play, this time with a twist.

Horn play vs. Fresno State, 2008.

In the diagram above, though, you’ll see the center pulling down the line and wrapping around the tackle, which leaves the middle linebacker untouched.  I drew this particular variation because I saw it used in a different manner in a 2008 clip versus Fresno State.  The defense is a 4-3 under look, where the defensive linemen slide towards the weak side of the formation and the Sam ‘backer walks up to the line of scrimmage opposite the tight end.  With all three linebackers on the field, it should be pretty effective against a three-wide formation.


That’s right, you just saw the center intentionally ignore a guy who’s primary job in this situation is stuffing the run in order to pick up the centerfield safety.  Why?  Because they take themselves out of the play.  The weak-side ‘backer (53) stays put because he’s reading the fake handoff and probably worried about the zone read coming back in his direction.  Meanwhile, the middle linebacker (54) is so confused by what’s going on that, rather than either effectively flowing to the ball or attacking the play in the backfield, he holds the gap and gets swallowed up in the wash.

I don’t know if this is something figured out in the booth, part of their regular planning when they get a defense crossed, something identified by the tight end and QB at the start of the clip, or if the center has a blocking rule to pull if he doesn’t see the linebacker coming.  Whatever it is, Nevada’s got the Mike crossed up like a Pop Warner player who’s just seen his first fullback spinner.

I also want to mention a more power-oriented pistol version Nevada uses that features a second offset running back.  Versus Boston College in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, they used this formation to pitch to the play’s lone wide receiver, and along the way used about every trick in their playbook.  Here’s how it looked:

Wide receiver reverse off an option look.

First, Nevada set-up this play with two prior plays from the offset-I, one a simple run and the other a pass.  For this play, in addition to the offset-I, Nevada has two tight ends on the field, both lined up to the left of the center, making this a power running formation, though oddly enough, the right tackle is in a two-point stance.  Just before the snap, the offset fullback turns and begins running left, only getting a step or two before the ball’s in the air.

At the snap, the blockers on the line of scrimmage block to the left in what looks to the defense like a regular zone play, though on closer inspection they’re shield blocking like they’re protecting a quick QB rollout; meanwhile, the tight end at wingback steps out to block, and the receiver steps downfield to block or catch.  The motioning fullback bends his motion into a rocket sweep, the halfback runs up the gut on an inside zone look, and the quarterback fakes a counter handoff before running down the line.  The playing is screaming “speed option.”

Then everything changes.  The right tackle is floating downfield and waiting.  The wingback changes direction and pulls down the line of scrimmage to pick up stray defenders.  The wide receiver turns around, too, only he cuts deeper into the backfield and suddenly it’s apparent that he’s the pitch man.  The right tackle is sealing the end, and the pulling tight end is a lead blocker.

It’s a testament to the discipline of BC’s defense (and especially linebacker Luke Kuechly) that the play was stopped short of a first down because every single Nevada player involved in this play was part of either a pure fake or misdirection.  Add to the fact that this play was set up by two preceding plays that used elements of this third down attempt, and you can probably think of quite a few times where this play could cause serious damage.

Like all evolutions in scheme, the pistol isn’t a “perfect” formation, and neither are the play calls associated with it.  As with any shotgun formation, there are times during the cadence where the center and quarterback take their eyes off the defense.  Zone blocking and simple reads can help negate shifting D’s, but not completely.

In comparison to under-center plays, not even Nevada’s inside zone is as immediate a threat to the defense as a quarterback sneak, particularly when run contrary to cadence tendencies.  Nevada’s short line splits don’t always create angles conducive to pure down-blocking plays, and teams that are familiar with rocket/jet motions will have an easier time defending veer and pitch-option plays than they would against a flexbone or pro-set team, for example.  You also have to get skill position players who like running into oncoming DE’s and linebackers.  Finally, the obscured tailback can work both ways, as being behind the QB makes identifying incoming blitzes harder.

Of course, you can write a list of tradeoffs for any formation, and I think the evolution of the game will be kinder to this wrinkle than many others, particularly as more teams adopt it.  If game footage is any indication, the tradeoff Ault takes most seriously is the ability of running backs to protect the QB, as he’ll occasionally line his backs up in the traditional shotgun.  All that said, the single- or double-tight end pistol formation might be the game’s most truly balanced formation, and I imagine we’ll see it become a fixture in the sport.

Steve Van Buren (1920 – 2012)

Steve Van Buren; image by Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Who would’ve imagined that an orphan from Honduras would be the savior of the Philadelphia Eagles?

A former Bayou Bengal who was selected by the woeful Eagles as the fifth overall pick in the 1944 NFL draft, Van Buren was a bruising runner who racked up four rushing titles during his eight-year career.  He also scored the lone touchdown during the 1948 “Philly Blizzard” game, which earned the Eagles their first NFL title.  When a knee injury forced his retirement after just eight seasons of work, he was already the NFL’s career leader in rushing yards and touchdowns.

Van Buren scoring the lone TD during the ’48 NFL Championship game; image courtesy

Inside Nevada’s Pistol Offense, Pt. 2

The outside zone (or stretch play) is the simplest way to punish defenses that begin overplaying the inside zone.  Nevada employs this play, though I think their specialized extensions of the base inside zone are more interesting.  One of the greatest strengths of zone blocking is its flexibility: linemen and tight ends essentially learn a single blocking scheme that can be matched to dozens of plays.  Nevada’s use of the inside zone scheme exemplifies this approach. As mentioned in Part 1, the QB’s boot action can be enough to keep the unblocked backside end contained.  This is important because it lets the offense get a numerical advantage at the point of attack.  When the boot isn’t respected, Nevada has a host of alternatives.

In pro-style formations, the fullback is often responsible for picking up an aggressive backside defensive end or rushing linebacker on zone run plays.  Nevada’s base three-wide/single-tight end set doesn’t use a fullback, so Ault compensates by motioning a wide receiver across the formation.  The ball is snapped when the receiver is between the play-side tackle and guard, giving him some room to pick up speed before catching a (hopefully) surprised defender.  Ault calls this variation the “zone slice;” the diagram below shows the flanker making the block, though any play-side receiver, end, or wingback can be used.

Zone slice with flanker motion.

When the backside end is recklessly pursuing down the line, Ault uses the zone read play that Rich Rodriguez made famous.  In Nevada’s parlance it’s the “zone bluff.”  The blocking is the same as for the inside zone and zone slice, as is the tailback movement.  The QB modifies his handoff, though, to accommodate the mesh and read the backside defensive end; if the end crashes down, he keeps the ball and runs outside, away from the blocking (and often away from the defensive flow.)

Zone bluff; the defensive end being read is highlighted in gray.

Ault occasionally runs a triple option off the zone slice principles that attacks the weak side of the formation with motion.  In the version below, a receiver on a rocket sweep (or “buck motion” at Nevada in a nod to the days of the Wing-T and single-wing) becomes the pitch receiver.  On the rocket sweep, the receiver motions closer to the tight end; at the snap, the receiver continues running to the opposite sideline by looping behind the tailback.  Depending on the QB’s read of the weak defensive end, he can hand the ball to the running back on an inside zone, keep the ball, or pitch it to the receiver.  To add a little more spice, the tight end makes a delayed slice pull to help open the backside, or even to serve as an option for a shovel pass; I haven’t heard it confirmed, but on this variation the tailback mesh might be a fake the entire way.

Triple option look off a flanker rocket sweep; the tight end is on a delayed pull.

The run motions for every play I’ve described here can be turned into an effective play-action pass.  Even the triple option look above can function as a passing scheme, with the rocket sweep becoming a circle route.  Defenses will often attack the motioning receiver to stop the pitch; this puts them out of position to cover the receiver’s circle route.  To magnify mistakes like this, Ault will flood the side of the field that’s threatened by the rocket sweep; in addition to stressing defenders even more by presenting numerous threats, putting all of the receiving threats on the same half of the field simplifies the quarterback’s passing reads.  Ault admits to not being a fan of naked bootlegs, so it’s common for a tight end or lineman to pull so as to protect the QB with a moving pocket.

Playaction pass off the rocket sweep; the tight end pulls to protect the quarterback.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in these plays is that the side the QB opens to can alert the defense to the play’s intent.  Ault believes backfield motion can prevent defenses from keying on meshes, though he also employs gap-blocking attacks to keep defenses honest.  Despite common opinions that zone and gap schemes are too conflictive to employ simultaneously, down-blocking can be a perfect complement to zone schemes.  Given the “phonebooth fight” mentality of the offense, there isn’t much distinction besides step-direction in the two schemes, so it makes even more sense for the Wolf Pack to use gap-based runs.  We’ll look at a few of those plays and some different formation tweaks to close this series.

Inside Nevada’s Pistol Offense, Pt. 1

If you think of the modern shotgun-based, spread-option run game to consist of zone runs and draws, the zone read, and different flavors of the veer and speed option, it’s easy to see that the running back’s position is a pre-snap declaration of where possible plays can go, and that the best running plays are wide plays without much interior balance.  All of the runs are fairly slow since the back gets the ball after only a step or two (at most), and the trickier meshes involved in veers and reads slow the play further.

Opposing coaches, of course, learned these limitations a long time ago.  While I haven’t heard it confirmed, it seems like defensive coordinators who play against teams that favor these plays have built-in rules for fluid “scrape exchanges” where a defensive end who is a likely read target slants hard to the inside, while a ‘backer fills the void behind him.  During the mesh, the quarterback reads the end and runs to fill the vacated gap, not realizing the linebacker on that side is ready to meet him.  Since the running back’s position determines the read, the scrape exchange can be a situational rule that’s used effectively even if the back flops sides right before the snap (provided the defensive players communicate effectively.)  Zone blitzes can effectively do the same thing when aligned properly.  Finally, defensive linemen can singly complicate the read by shuffling down the backside; the combination of squared shoulders and lateral movement can make a defender’s intent hard to recognize.

Nevada head coach Chris Ault was familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of these different schemes when he looked to modernize his I-formation offense in 2005; the aspect that concerned him most was the lack of a powerful inside run game.  He wanted to add the best parts of the shotgun game and leave the bad parts behind.  His idea was to line the QB in a shortened shotgun position four-and-a-half yards behind center, with a halfback directly behind him.  It was a novel solution (if anyone had ever used it before, it’s been lost to history) that provided quarterbacks with the pass-protection and vision benefits afforded by the shotgun snap, while letting Ault keep the I-formation’s fast-hitting, downhill run attack.

Pistol formation with an 11 personnel set vs a 4-2-5 defense.

Ault also needed to turn around a Nevada program that was not only struggling, but one he had essentially hired himself to coach, as he had been head coach, athletic director, or a combination of the two for almost all of 1976-2004.  His first season back was an inauspicious 5-7 slog that prompted action, including his examination of spread teams.

During a 2010 presentation for Nike’s Coach of the Year clinics, he recalled that when he brought the pistol concept before his staff in January of 2005, “they looked at me as if I had really lost my marbles.”  They began by installing it as a short-yardage package and discovered new wrinkles.  Perhaps most important was that middle-of-the-field defenders had a hard time seeing the running back if he was lined up three yards behind the QB, especially when the back made his cut on inside zone plays.  This level of obscurity meant that despite being lined up about a yard deeper in the backfield than in the I-formation, backs not only hit the line of scrimmage with greater actual speed, they were perceived to be even faster than that.

While Nevada uses the pistol with bunch sets and multiple wingbacks, their base set is an 11 group (one back, one tight end, three receivers.)  The formation was married with Nevada’s tight zone game; just about every team runs the inside zone these days, though Nevada takes “inside” to the extreme.  Where most teams tell their backs to aim for the playside guard’s outer hip, Wolf Pack runners aim inside the guard.  The linemen take short, two-foot splits across the line and their initial play-side steps focus more on forward movement than you’ll see in some schemes.  (I’ve left out the blocking schemes to help focus on the backfield movement; Nevada blocks the inside zone like everyone else by focusing on double-teaming the defensive tackles and then moving up to the second-level defenders.)  When paired with bruising backs, Nevada’s inside zone is the football equivalent of grabbing somebody by the lapels and head-butting him for a few quarters.  The quarterback completes the play with a boot action to help stall the backside end.

Nevada’s inside zone play; note QB boot off the play.

Even against talented defenses (their 2011 Bowl Game vs. Boston College has a lot of clips floating around), you’ll see Nevada pick up yardage on this play because the back is so quick to the hole that penetrating linemen can’t get their bearings straight fast enough to make the tackle.  Teams that rely on their middle linebacker to secure both A-gaps are put under even more pressure.

This twist on the inside zone is the base play that an entire offense is built around.  Like any good base play, it’s simple to teach, hard to screw up, hard for a defense to disguise an approach to defeat it, and sets the stage for a host of subsequent plays.  By threatening the very center of the defense with undeniable immediacy, second-level defenders (particularly outside linebackers) have to be cautious when pressing the line of scrimmage, and their coaches have to weigh the value of traditional run blitzes and other elements to stop spread run games.

In part two, we’ll look at how Ault made this brand of inside zone into the base element of what’s essentially a unique and complete offense as worthy of its own moniker as better-known peers.

2012 NFL Hall of Fame Inductees


NFL Hall of Fame, Class of 2012, from left: Curtis Martin, Dermontii Dawson, Cortez Kennedy, Jack Butler, Willie Roaf, Chris Doleman; image courtesy
This year’s class strikes me as a group of players’ players–no megastars or centerpieces for perennial Super Bowl squads, but all were workmen who at times could’ve been the league’s best players at their respective positions.  Curtis Martin is probably the best-known player of the group, as he outlasted many of his peers in the run game.  Chris Doleman and Cortez Kennedy were unblockable at times, more than a few considered Willie Roaf to be the best tackle in the game, and Dermontti Dawson has been decreed by some as perhaps the greatest center to have played.

Perhaps the most interesting is Jack Butler, who may have been the first archetypal “shut-down” corner, and earned this reputation while playing for some bad Steelers teams and with a career cut short by a knee injury.  Butler didn’t have the pedigree of a future Hall of Famer.  He never played football in high school, first picking up the game in college after ending ambitions of becoming a priest.  He came to the Steelers undrafted, and may have languished as a back-up defensive end if it weren’t for injuries in the secondary.  When unleashed against receivers, he turned into an interception magnet; he’s still 14th all-time in picks, and he has more return yardage than more recent Steelers great Rod Woodson.  At his peak, he intercepted 19 passes over the course of 24 games.

His contributions to the game may have been even greater off the field.  Per his website:

“His work and leadership with the BLESTO scouting combine and it’s member teams changed the way the game’s talent is scouted and evaluated.  The pioneering efforts of Jack Butler and BLESTO were instrumental in the development of today’s sophisticated college scouting methods and the NFL Combine.  BLESTO pioneered the use of computers in college scouting, personality and “Wonderlic” testing, detailed medical evaluations, and the use of scouting combines.”

The actual added value of these things may be debated, but their impact can’t be.  Butler was an innovator in many ways, and when added to his achievements as a player, today’s announcement strikes me as long overdue.

Penn State and the Death Penalty Disconnect

“Shuttering Beaver Stadium for two years would take Penn State football down a peg. It would also punish loads of hard-working athletes who have done nothing wrong, as well as all the fans who live and die with the Nittany Lions. But that will be a far better result than the alternative—allowing a pedophile-sheltering athletic department that was bent on self-preservation to succeed in having itself preserved. If Penn State football carries on this fall with a new coach and those old white-and-blue uniforms, then the worldviews of Curley and Schultz and Spanier and Paterno will prevail. Though all four men lost their jobs, their mission to protect Penn State football at all costs will win out in the end.”  Josh Levin, Slate Magazine

I own a copy of Jerry Sandusky’s Coaching Linebackers.  It was a bit of a relic already when I bought it back in 2001 or 2002, as it  rehashed an older Sandusky book (which I didn’t realize at the time.)  The book was built around the Split-6 defense, which was an anachronism even ten years ago, and the pass coverage rules were simple compared to the book’s peers, and completely outdated in today’s world of pattern-match, catch-man, and other fluid concepts.  It was poorly edited, too, with repeated pages and ill-conceived thoughts.

As someone who writes about the history of football, though, it’s an interesting peek into the football mentality of the 70’s and 80’s, and I’m still entertained when I read it.  I was thinking about defending the veer a few nights ago, so I pulled it from my shelf and looked at the cues and assignments specifically made for defeating the play.  Conversely, on several occasions I’ve considered throwing the book away.  The impulse has nothing to do with its content, and everything to do with its associations. I keep the book because little good can come of trashing it.  If I discard it, I may rid my life of a few minor, fleeting moments of distasteful association.  That’s it.  It wouldn’t punish Sandusky or his de facto accomplices, and it wouldn’t compensate his victims (much less magically undo what happened to them.)  And if someone took it from me, I might even be angry and resentful.

Unfortunately, most of the commentary on the Penn State scandal–at least that focusing on the institution of college football–has overlooked the realities of human nature and failed to meaningfully conceptualize what the program and the scandal represent. The Josh Levin quote I opened with can be argued for, especially as an act of symbolism, yet the bulk of his article is flawed: these punishments will not be the impetus for a football-seachange at Penn State.  NCAA fiat may have changed the culture of a fast-rising program like SMU, where there was a massive body of rule breakers to be punished and learn their resulting lessons, but it won’t reach so deeply at Penn State.  The popularity of college football–which is far greater nationally than it was in the 80’s, and far more entrenched in the Penn State fanbase that it was at SMU’s–is the root of the Penn State scandal, and no punishment short of shuttering the program for decades will address that.

Assuming Levin’s projection for healthy future finances at the school holds up, we’ve already seen what can happen when a major football school loses coaches and scholarships: it goes out and hires a scandal-plagued, two-time national championship coach to revamp their offense and kick recruiting into a higher gear.  We know that elite, pro-minded recruits pursue playing time, and for that reason alone they’ll likely flock to Penn State once the scholarship spigot is opened.  Hiring an impressive coach will only seal the deal.  If anything, Penn State could be better-positioned for success a few years after the sanctions than they were during the Paterno tailspin.

Maybe the executives and the trustees will choose not to follow this path.  Maybe they’ll hire a late-career Ty Willingham-type to straighten things, and meanwhile ignore the fans, students, and alums who’ve had competitive football pulled from their lives just long enough to be hungry for it.  Maybe they’ll also ignore the State College community that’s been pounded by lost revenues for what will be most of a decade while the program regains its footing.  They might even tarp entire sections of Beaver Stadium to forcefully limit attendance.  Maybe, but I sincerely doubt it.

All this assumes Penn State’s finances will be rosy in every other aspect.  But with a stagnant economy, inflating student expenses, and lessening support from the states likely to continue well into the future, what are the odds of that?  Penn State is just as likely to finish its sanction period during a prolonged trend of decreased enrollment as it is to emerge to a sound fiscal picture.  Would anyone shun football on principle if it meant also hurting the school and its students in fact?  On a more basic level, if the decision-makers in the Sandusky scandal hid disgusting crimes to protect their jobs, would executives in similar roles refuse to embrace a legal, revenue driving sport in a manner that put them at risk for removal?

For that matter, can we expect any other cash-strapped state school in a similar position to do differently?  Penn State benefited from a strong alumni base and massive graduating classes.  A smaller school with a nascent, yet strong program—a Boise State for example—would be hard pressed to work against their own interests in order for the NCAA and the established, less-vulnerable schools to get a PR win or simply feel better about themselves.  For the Penn State scandal to really matter to higher education, it would have to lead to a movement where schools decide to be less institutes of life experience and more about unfettered education,whether by gutting the circus aspects of the modern campus, embracing internet classes and/or the commuter model, or refusing to engage in bidding wars for showcase professors.

I love college football, but I believe it’s greatly flawed. I believe it’s unfair to the players in both fiscal and health factors.  I believe it can be at direct odds with schools’ educational directives.  I believe its allure to the young and the desperate isn’t balanced out by other aspects of our society.  And I believe that keeping it in the conversation of sport and punishing a single team through a mechanism designed to preserve competitive steaks and fan interest does nothing to alleviate its problems.  The fact that we’re talking about bowl bans and lost scholarships and not about whistleblower laws, the stigma of sexual assault, or the seeming confluence of sociopathic behavior and leadership, means the steps we need to take as a society to prevent the next Sandusky cover up from occurring in a football program or a fortune 500 company aren’t being made.

I hope I’m wrong: I hope Penn State will ground itself, that the schools that have sold their souls will change course, and that this horrible tale will spark a productive assessment of issues not frequently discussed.  I suppose we’ll see.

Art by Steve Benson; first appeared in Arizona Republic, 7/15/12