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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Season 2 Opens with the Pistol

Michigan v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Welcome back to the second season of The Daily Gopher’s Football Seminar. For those checking in for the first time, every Monday during the football season I assign a topic for the week and then we talk about it in the comments. Sometimes people just read instead. This week we’re talking about the Pistol formation, not the Pistol offense.

What’s the Pistol?

Why are we even talking about the Pistol? For that matter what is the Pistol? Let’s start with the first question. We are talking about the Pistol because Minnesota’s new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson regularly had his teams line up in the formation. It is widely believed that he will continue to do so at Minnesota. In order to understand why he might want to do that, we can turn to the second question.

The Pistol is a formation that requires that the QB to line up somewhere between under center and 7 yards behind the center, typically about 3 to 5 yards. A running back lines up directly behind the quarterback. Here is an example of the Pistol formation.

Notice how in this screenshot from Johnson’s old team, the quarterback is about 4 yards behind the center with the running back directly behind him. This is the defining feature of the Pistol. From here, an offense may add a variety of different looks to the formation. The Pistol can have zero, one, two, three or four receivers. Johnson’s teams typically lined up with two receivers, a tight end, and a H-Back like in the next picture.

One immediate advantage of this formation is that the running back is hidden from the defense, specifically the linebacker. Minnesota’s quarterbacks average 6’3”, the tallest running back on the roster is 6’1”. Mitch Leidner dwarfs every one of his running backs. The Mike linebacker will not even see the first few steps of the running back on a play.

Invisibility is particularly advantageous for running plays. Take a look at the next play from the 2014 Ragin’ Cajuns.

The H-Back misses his block on the end at the top of the picture, but this play still goes for big yards because the middle linebacker is frozen for key seconds at the beginning of the play.

Chris Ault at Nevada was the originator of the formation and he is a north/south running coach. His dislike of the shotgun was “the idea of a running back getting the ball running east and west.” Jay Johnson usually has his quarterback moving horizontally across the field on option plays. Here’s another example of a option from the pistol formation.

Note that the line is blocking a standard inside run and attempting to get double teams on multiple defensive players. As far as the line is concerned, this is a run to the left. The Quarterback is responsible for reading the end and making the correct decision. In this case he does, pulling the ball out and taking off for the outside.

Look at the result. The Quarterback has easily beaten the end past the point of contain, and the H-back and receivers have sealed their men to open a major hole. Here’s the same play from another angle.

55 in the above play is the defender that the Quarteback is reading. The line has achieved a double team on the defensive tackle with the ability to easily move on to the middle linebacker. 81 in white on the far left of the screen is in prime position to block the other linebacker (3). If the defensive end had tried to play contain this play would have gone for big yards the other way. Here White has achieved a nearly perfect running play that offers both a traditional old school run blocking scheme with new school spread run concepts.

Minnesota’s New Offense

Tracy Claeys said during the off-season that he liked about 60 to 70 percent of Minnesota’s playbook. One assumes that he meant the base running plays. Johnson will certainly follow in the same vein as Matt Limegrover. Both men like to run the ball. Where they will differ is in the freedom granted to the QB, the base formation, and the favored run and pass protection schemes. Bart Miller was brought in to bring new aggression and nastiness to the offensive line. Based on the pictures above, Miller will be a perfect fit for Johnson’s ideal playbook.

The Pistol formation does not require an up-tempo scheme. After all, the Pistol is just a formation. Nevertheless, Johnson liked to play up-tempo while coordinating Louisiana-Lafayette and it is reasonable to suppose that will carry over to the Gophers. This should be a boon to Mitch Leidner, who seemed far more poised and confident in an up-tempo scheme last year. The senior QB will be handed more responsibility this year, and like all offenses, will be the most responsible for making the right play call decisions.

The other key member of the team will be Tyler Moore, the presumptive starter at center. We will talk about the offensive line later in the year, but suffice it to say that without a major improvement from the offensive line there will be no brilliant fireworks on offense.

Next Week

Next week we’re going to talk about passing trees. Our two pieces are both SB Nation siblings.

Wide Receiver Basic Routes and the Passing Tree

Everything You Need to Know About Passing, pt 1: The Route Tree