By: Steve Balestrieri
With the New England Patriots post-season over and many Patriots fans as well as fans from other teams concerning themselves with the NFL Combine, Draft, and Free-Agency, you can rest assured that NFL Defensive Coaches will be working hard designing coverages and defensive bases to stop the Pistol Offense.
Bill Belichick being a student of the game has probably already spent quite a bit of time preparing for it. Because had the Patriots won against Baltimore, they’d have been facing the 49ers for the second time this season. And Belichick usually fares better the second time around facing a team on the defensive side. It would have been interesting to see how the Patriots opted to defend it the second time around.
Rest assured, the Pistol Offense is not a fad or a gimmick. The Pistol offense has been around the NFL for a couple of years. Besides San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, and Carolina have all used it to some degree.
The Pistol offense was devised eight years ago by Nevada coach Chris Ault. It’s a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and single-back formation where the QB lines up 3 yards behind center and the running back is 3 yards behind the QB.
The beauty of the pistol is that the QB has the option to run or pass, and the freeze option running plays will cause an aggressive defense to slow down. The Forty-Niners especially are now running more pre-snap motion with it and the offense is tailor made for an athletic quarterback such as Colin Kaepernick.
And Kaepernick fits the bill perfectly for this offensive scheme, he’s blisteringly fast, has a 95 mph fastball when throwing the ball and makes quick accurate decisions and he never gets flustered. Even down 17 points in the NFC Championship Game.
Baltimore faced a similar offense against Washington earlier this season, and allowed 359 yards of total offense, including 186 rushing. It won’t be an easy task to stop the 49ers offense as they, to a man are much more talented than the Redskins.
It puts the edge of the defense in no man’s land. If the DE stays up the field, the QB will give the ball to the running back. And if the DE crashes down the line of scrimmage, the QB will keep, play off the block of the TE and either keep it and run or go vertically in the passing game.
The spread in the Pistol relies on speed and space to outplay the defense. Teams have to put their most athletic defenders on the field and stay disciplined in their gaps especially in the running game.
The key to stopping the pistol in my opinion are the linebackers, because if the DEs can set the edge, they will force the plays back inside, similar to what Baltimore did in the second half against Washington earlier this season.
Pressuring the quarterback is a double-edged sword, while it will force him to pass the ball before he wants to and to make bad decisions, it can also leave huge gaps for an athletic QB to run the ball. Teams may try to send two or more blitzers from the same area, such as the Rex Ryan/Jets overload blitz scheme to get to the QB and force him to dump the ball.
Simply laying back wasn’t the answer for the Patriots, against San Francisco they sat back but Kaepernick picked them apart, especially early in the game. And going to a Cover 0 in man coverage can result in the QB getting huge yardage on designed QB draw plays.
I would expect the Ravens this weekend to mix things up quite a bit, going from their base 3-4 and designing different looks, dropping linemen or different LBs into coverage. They may opt to play more nickel packages to fill up the open spaces. This may open up the blitz on the quarterback from different spots on the field.
Next season should be a very interesting one, with the success that teams are having running the Pistol, and the NFL being a copy-cat league, I would expect to see more teams testing the waters out. But I expect to see a lot of teams having different looks on defense trying to stop it.
And we all know Belichick will be working on an answer for this over the spring and summer.