The “Diamond” formation and other multi-back “pistol” sets

I like to often say that football is a simple game, and in that vein coaches, when designing offensive plays, have really only two choices: To change where the players begin (the formation), and where they’ll end up (the play design). Formations are often more important than plays, but also should be easier to get right: The guy should stand where he was told to stand. But they’re still fun to play with, and the past couple of seasons have seen some interesting wrinkles.

Probably the most famous new formation came about from the world’s smallest adjustment: Moving a runningback over a couple of feet. But no one calls it that; instead, they call it the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps). Of course, announcers like to say a team is using the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps) whenever the runningback lines up in the pistol, but really only a handful of teams use the set in anything that can be called an “offense” in the sense of a fully robust system, Nevada, of course, being among them with a mixture of downhill I-formation plays from the shotgun with options like the speed option and the veer play.

But I’ve been kind of down on the “Pistol” as something broad or novel, because most teams that have used it are still one-back teams and all they’ve done is move the runningback around a little, which is something good teams like Oregon or others were doing anyway, just not from the pistol. The real advantage of the pistol (the formation, not the offense), however, comes when you add a second back to the backfield. In the image below, West Virginia actually goes with three backs (more on that in a bit), but the point is simply that you can align a fullback (or two fullbacks) to add a strength to the formation.

A bit of overcrowding?

Now, West Virginia didn’t have much luck with the three back set, but the idea is a good one:

Although the “pistol back” isn’t anything magical himself, it does give flexibility to motion a fullback back and forth, just as your typical pro-style power team does to change the strength of the formation. The advantages of the two-back pistol are two-fold: (1) with the fullback to one side you can declare a strength, and also motion him back and forth (and from H-back to fullback and so on), to put pressure on the defense and to force them to adjust and (2) it opens up the traditional two-back I-form play-action game. Regarding the first point, the advantages possible here are limited only by your imagination and terminology. And the second is equally expansive.

For inspiration, you can think of Spurrier’s old Florida offense, which was largely built on two foundations, each from the I-formation: The Lead Draw and play-action off that play. Below is his favorite play (h/t Bruce Eien):

Now, imagine that play from the pistol set with a fullback, with the fullback shifting where the strength of the formation is. Indeed, Spurrier originally didn’t want to go to shotgun because he was afraid he’d have to give up his beloved play-action game.

Of course, the set everyone is focused on is the infamous “Diamond” formation, first used by Dana Holgorsen at Oklahoma State but now in use by about a dozen other teams. It’s a good formation: It’s a power set, keeping nine men offensively in the box; doing that should give you individual matchups on the outside; and you get most of the advantages of motion as described above. Oklahoma used it at the end of last season, as the below image shows (h/t Offensive Breakdown):

The Offensive Breakdown site gets into some of the particulars with the “Diamond” set. I’m not totally sold on it as being a cure-all: Why wouldn’t a fullback and an H-back tight-end give you the same advantages and more, with a better immediate pass threat (no one throws it to those fullbacks in the Diamond set, except maybe bootleg passes to them in the flat) and the inside gets awful clogged since, with no tight-ends, there are still only the same numbers of gaps created as with a single-back offense. If you ask Holgorsen he’ll tell you that what they really want to do out of the set is throw the ball, but they still used it in short yardage.

But those are details: The larger point is that there are a lot of interesting possibilities (most all of them foreshadowed at some previous point in football history). The “Diamond” is one possibility, but rest assured that there are others.

  • Barbour

    What Oklahoma did a little with the formation is to use it for misdirection.  Have one of the halfbacks run sweep action, fake it to him, and then hand the ball off to the tailback on Power. 

    The goal is to put the EMLOS and outside LB/crack zone player in jeopardy–stretch them out with the sweep action and hit underneath them with the lead and pull.  I’d pair this play with a play-action, running the FB on a seam pattern against 2 deep.  The double fake action should keep the LBs focused on the run, and keep them out of a drop against the seam.

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  • Mr.Murder

    Nice note on the FB seam, just what Gibbs says you can do vs. cover two with a zone/boot set.

    Faced a pistol that called their runs before instead of doing true option reads. The up back gives you horizontal fakes and the deep set back allows you to go on traditional play pass or dive option reads. He also allows you to work wide on swings or compliment the jet/wide veer option. They ran more of a lead with it and placed the give back closer on horizontal runs so we never really got fooled by it.
    Think the best item to use would be to veer to the backside and read that end for the QB and FB, then counter step the HB to mirror that FB back to the pull side where you have a Fb lead for a traditional option. Maybe the deeper back ends up reading the give as well off the counter step and goes either way?
    That would combine the Paul Brown Sr play where he would do a lead read to the opposite G or T, have the other back mirror them outside for a pitch back instead of leading them into the run. If they filled from outside in or stepped down under the puller from end or tackle you gave the ball. It gave them an ability to option the edge with a great back instead of a pocket passer in Graham.

    That diamond looks nice on a zone dive because you can’t key one FB to the side unless the line has someone who cannot be run at it could give you trouble.
    As for the pistol unless they space the line out there you can cause conflict issues with protection on a dive fake from outside in the same way A gap blitzes are hard for backs to pick up if they line up behind the center and QB. The fake back ends up on the wrong side of the fake to protect. They must have a pretty narrow range of action or fake effectiveness for certain looks and you could probably formation them out of certain techniques on study coming off weak side.

     You would basically have to assume the end stays on the QB and block down inside of him to ghost give the back. That is letting the QB get hit a lot on assumption. Or you lose the backfield action effectiveness since outside fakes to the set back would be hard to protect. Guess you have to do jet actions from slot unless you balance the backs, doesn’t that further take from you by not declaring strength and going through checks? How often can you check for lateral jet actions from certain sets? That would be a diamond strength in comparison.

    Seems like there are too many ways to determine who would end up being the runner. The danger on option teams is being told who to run by their formation.  They could choose your least effective player or end up making you jet to boundary, etc.

  • Anonymous

    Franklin at La Tech used this quite a bit (both off-set and ‘diamond’) in 2010, and the ‘power’ (2nd back right behind the guard with another back deep) has been a wrinkle of the patented TFS since 2007 (that I know of).   What is peculiar is what teams are are hoping to get out of this and you can see there are two distinct motivations offenses are taking with this (though both are about adding numbers to the box….duh).  Kinda touched on this the other day to an extend ( http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com/2011/08/attack-nodes-running-from-gun.html  ).  

    For Tech, in particular, they are still going to run OUTSIDE, they are just attempting to fortify the power and stretch runs.  For folks like Arizona State (or Northwestern), its more of a shortened gun (just cheating the quarterback up) to run inside and flare a back out.  It does provide a way of ‘spread’ teams to add a different dimension than just 3×1 and 2×2 all night without truly being in a 21 personnel environment (defense will still be in a sub package).

  • Robpeterman1

    The key to the Pistol is the shortened snap by moving the Quarterback up a few yards, and not so much moving the running back over a little bit.  The key is the angles that the runningbacks can take are almost as if the QB is under center, as opposed to the side angles of a 5 yard shotgun offense.  IMO if you were going to take a shot at the Pistol offense, if would be the move the shotgun QB up 2 yards offense.

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  • Andy Mack

    What teams dont seem to be doing out of the Diamond which i think is the best thing for it is the Split Veer. Have the guy behind the QB as a FB and the 2 guys to each side RBs. Then Veer 1 way, the FB then leads up for the QB and 2nd RB on the Pitch and you have a monster play. You can run it left or right, it makes no difference.

  • Batsandgats

     what about running a splitback set , like the ones in the 70’s and early 80’s, just out pistol, two backs behind the qb, 5 yards from the los and the qb in the middle 4 yards out, back in the day the qb was under center with both backs about 5 yards back, with a fullback and a halfback, each a threat to get the ball? Could this be successful? I don’t know if it would be technically pistol because the back wouldn’t be directly behind the qb but similar concept

  • Ggg

    Look up Tony Annese’s SKI-GUN stuff from Muskegon, MI … its what they’re doing here and he’s been doing it for a few years

  • Batsandgats

    and i just saw something similar t o what I was talking about. Wofford who is playing Clemson right now, they are running the triple option, it looks sort of like the old wishbone, except the qb is about 4 to 5 yards behind the center with 2 backs behind him, one is the dive back and the other is the guy that can get the pitch

  • Anonymous

    the one thing it does give an offense (in addition to 21 personnel leverage with 10 personnel on the field)  is that it forces a defense to ‘even up’ from a front and coverage perspective, much like double-tight does.

    https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-jF35U9lzpNY/Tmwb92OAxJI/AAAAAAAAHew/6Y0-de8LhWs/s576/ScreenShot081.jpg

  • Mr.Murder

    There’s film of it from the Vick era Falcons,  under center, in goal line formations.

  • Mr.Murder

    There’s film of it from the Vick era Falcons,  under center, in goal line formations.

  • Robc

    Seems to me, the way to run the diamond is as basically a pistol/flexbone combo.  Fullback should be lined up behind the QB, with 2 halfbacks/slotbacks/A-back types to his side.  Can run the plays that GT/Navy does (sort of) without needing to motion the slotback into the backfield.

  • Batsandgats

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUsrBPjtDwM

    go to 1:20 this is what you are talking about, also 2:21, 4:03 , 6:12 is passing play out of the formation, they also ran the formation that navy/gtech runs and even had some zone read out of the pistol formation, quite original.

    http://www.freeimagehosting.net/6371a   This was formation I was thinking of

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  • Rbstudiows

    I started drawing up plays w/ the diamond formation in 2006, I never heard of it and came up w/
    The obvious name Diamond formation. But I always made plays w/ QB under center. My sons pop warner team ran it some in 2007. I shared it w/ many others since then. I thought it was an offence that would reduce the defences ability for any pre snap reads. With 2 backs up the look is hard to figure as with its inverted wishbone formation 1 back up gives a look from the fullbacks first step. I have alot of plays drawn, like an inside reverse and xtra lead plays with  a counter w/ two lead blockers for best shot short plays. I first saw Henley high school from Oregon  use it in the 2008 season. Several other Oregon high schools have been using it the last two seasons as well! Nice to see it catching round.

  • ABeurket

    completely agree, i came up with an offense 3 years ago that revolves around this formation and variations of that concept/play… the biggest trick is getting the backside pitchman involved in doing something productive. By dropping both side guys back a yard or two you could have the backside guy orbit around (on a clock start from 8 and get in pitch phase by 5) while the frontside guy could outside lead block on the OLB/SS. its hard to explain in words but by drawing it up it looks great if the timing can mesh

  • ABeurket

    completely agree with the pre-snap reads part. any idea if there is film of the Henley HS running it or any others

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