New Grantland: How the Ravens Will Try to Contain Colin Kaepernick and the Diversity of the 49ers’ Offense

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Making whichever choice this unblocked defender makes the wrong one is read option 101. It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a decade. When fully realized, San Francisco’s read option goes far beyond those basics, to places college teams haven’t even been. “We’ve gone down our own road and we do what we do, not just traditional things other teams have done,” remarked Roman this week. “We’ve taken it and are going down our own path.”

Most significantly, on many of the 49ers’ read plays, it’s not just the quarterback who is reading the defender. A lead blocker is often doing the same.


Fullback Bruce Miller isn’t given every option on every play, but generally, there are three possibilities as the lead blocker on these plays: (1) If the end crashes down for the running back, Miller’s job is to feign blocking him and arc around to seal any linebacker scraping for the quarterback; (2) if the end stays home but slides inside, Miller can block him, opening a crease for Gore to slip through; or (3) if the end goes for the quarterback, then Miller slips inside of him and blocks the nearest linebacker.

Read the whole thing. Also, as a bonus, I had originally intended to describe the 49ers’ use of the Inverted Veer in the NFC Championship game but didn’t end up having a chance. Below the jump are some bonus diagrams.


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:


More on the “Pistol” offense

Although I don’t consider the “pistol offense,” as pioneered by Chris Ault at Nevada, so much an offense as merely a useful formation which adapts well to a variety of schemes, there’s no doubt that Ault has had outsized success with it. Last season, Nevada averaged a staggering 344 yards rushing per game, on an even more staggering 7.39 yards per carry. Now, the offense took several games to get going (and against the meatiest part of Nevada’s schedule, no less), but it’s clear that the concept is here to stay and that it can be the foundation for an explosive attack.

Indeed, the pistol has been adopted by other teams as well, as this video from the Big Ten Network discussing Indiana’s use demonstrates (h/t Shakin the Southland):

Shakin the Southland buttresses this video with a lengthy discourse on the subject, drawing on some of my past work and a great American Football Monthly piece by Mike Kuchar. See parts one and two of Mike’s breakdown.

As I’ve said before, however, whether the pistol is a “system” or a “formation” is secondary to the results, and when it works

When the offense is rolling (which it is most of the time these days), the pistol gives a team the best of both worlds: It has at its disposal all the Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez spread offense stuff, like the zone read and other gadgets, as well as the advantages of a “traditional” I-formation or pro-style single-back attack. Among these are that the runningback, aligning as he does behind the quarterback, tips no hand to the defense on the direction of the play, and the offense can get both good downhill running and play-action off those looks.

The test of the pistol will be, as it is for all offenses, along two vectors: First, will Nevada break through? But second, what will its ongoing influence be? Regardless of how this season turns out for the Wolfpack, I think the “pistol’s” legacy is safe.

As a bonus, below the jump I’ve got a video of one of my favorite Nevada plays, the “horn play.”


Paul Johnson usin’ some shotgun

The word coming out of Georgia Tech spring practice is PJ is dabbling in some shotgun. I’m not surprised, especially because one of the biggest issues for Tech last year when they did want to pass was protecting Josh Nesbitt, and the report is that the Jackets “mostly threw” out of it. Indeed, Paul Johnson used some ‘gun back in the Hawai’i days. (H/t EDSBS.)

But don’t think that Paul Johnson can’t run his offense from the gun. As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s perfectly possible to run the same flexbone system from shotgun as from under center. One somewhat well known brand is the “Skee-gun” (or “Ski-gun”), named after Muskegon, MI high school. Below is video of their pistol shotgun based flexbone offense.


QB Keeps:

Give reads: (After the jump)

Smart Notes 9/25/09

The “ski-gun.” I’ve been getting a lot of questions about a funky shotgun triple-option offense run by Muskegon, MI high school. (“Ski-gun” or “skee-gun” refers to Muskegon.) It’s basically Paul Johnson’s flexbone triple option offense run from a pistol set. They use a shallower pistol-gun set than does Nevada, but that’s because Nevada is more focused on traditional runs than with the quick hitting veer. Below are some clips of Muskegon’s triple: first the give reads, second the QB keeps, and third the pitches.

– Clock mismanagement. The commentary after the Dolphins lost to the Colts was partially about how much time of possession matters (my view is not that much, but I have more to say on it later), but even more about the ‘Phins awful clock management at the end of the game. And it was bad.

The biggest issue was they had no sense of urgency. I do not like teams that scramble and run around frenetically, but they were very lazy about it. They wasted a lot of valuable seconds, and there is little reason the game should have ended on second down from where they were on the field. They also spiked the ball unnecessarily. As I’ve said before, in college a spike is almost never necessary, except to get your kicking team on to the field. In the NFL, because the clock doesn’t stop except on out of bounds, incomplete passes, timeouts, and the two minute warning, a clock play might be necessary if there is a gang tackle and time is flowing off the clock, etc. But I’m still very skeptical because I firmly believe you can call a play with the same amount of communication as necessary to indicate a spike play. In this case though the Dolphins bad clock management overshadowed their improper spike because they ran out of time rather than downs.

How can you get better? Here’s the best drill I know of for being ready for the two-minute drill. It should be used to finish practice at least once a week, and I know of a team that ends every practice with it. The ball is placed on the practice field at either the 5 or 10. The quarterback and first team take the field; the coaches line up on the sidelines, just as if it is a real game. (You need a manager or ref to set the ball.) The point is to replicate the game-like scenario. You can use it against no defense but it is best I think to go live against the first or second team defense (and work on that planning as well), but don’t use any tackling to the ground. (I.e. routes, blocks, etc are fully speed but no tackling.)

The offense then runs its plays but, after every play, regardless of the play’s outcome, the ball is set 10 yards ahead, i.e. to the 15 or 20 and so on. The coaches signal the play in (or the quarterback does), the players deal with the time management, and the coaches keep a stopwatch.