One of the new things we saw offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf roll out this year was the Pistol formation. It first made an appearance in the Illinois game for a solitary play, but as the year went on, we started to see more and more Pistol looks from the Huskers, including the opening play of overtime against Wisconsin.
Because I suspect the Huskers will roll out some Pistol looks against the Tennesee Volunteers in the Music City Bowl, let’s take a look at what exactly the Pistol formation is and how Nebraska has used it thus far in 2016.
The Pistol formation shouldn’t be altogether unfamiliar to Nebraska fans, as Nevada used it extensively against the Huskers in 2007 and Tim Beck also dabbled with it during Taylor Martinez’s time in Lincoln:
Although the Pistol is often referenced as a “formation,” it’s more of a backfield alignment than a true formation. The WRs and TEs can align in a variety of ways, no different than they would if the QB was in a true Shotgun look or under center.
The difference, however, comes in how the QB and RB align. As you can see above, the RB lines up in a traditional single-back look, 8ish yards deep and directly behind the center. The QB is roughly three yards directly in front of the RB, closer to the center than a traditional shotgun look but not truly under center either.
Why use the Pistol? Flexibility in the run game for one. In the Shotgun, with the RB aligning to the side of the QB, the most successful running plays move away from where the RB lines up because the backfield is unbalaned. Running true Counter plays from Shotgun is difficult, as the RB has to work across the QB to take the hand off and then cut back to the other side of the line. The zone Read play is also limited to one side, as the QB must read the DE to the side where the RB lines up. This creates tendencies, as defenses will frequently set their defensive front based on where the RB lines up in the Shotgun knowing that most likely the offense will run away from that alignment.
By going to the Pistol, though, the offense creates a balanced backfield that allows the QB to run the zone Read to either side of the field:
Counter and Draw plays also become easier from the Pistol, as the RB can take a counter step without having to work across the QB to take the hand off before reversing field. Simpler, more efficient steps make the RB’s job easier, and it also helps the timing of the Counter action.
The other benefits of the Pistol are that (1) the RB is on a downhill path from the start and (2) taking the hand off closer to the line of scrimmage than the Shotgun. Instead of having to work across the QB to take the hand off, the Pistol allows the RB to work straight into the A gap. That downhill path also gives the RB an easier bend back to the backside of the play.
Finally, by pulling the QB out from under center, he’s still able to get the benefit of reading the coverage shell without having to turn his back to the defense during his pass drop as he would if he was under center. In other words, it gives you the benefit in the passing game of the Shotgun while creating the more flexible running game that you would have under center.
How Nebraska Uses The Pistol
Nebraska has used the Pistol 16 times this year, making its debut against Illinois and then featuring heavily in the last two games against Maryland (8 times) and Iowa (4 times). It’s primarily been a running look from Nebraska, with the overwhelming majority of Nebraska’s Pistol plays ending up in a run. Langsdorf’s first use was as basic as they come:
Just a standard Inside Zone Dive on short yardage. We’ve also seen Langsdorf use the Pistol with his Zone Read concept, allowing Tommy Armstrong to find Nebraska’s best matchup against the defensive front and run to that side.
But Nebraska’s most frequent use of the Pistol has been with its outside zone concept, using it as a way to attack the perimeter as Nebraska’s line has gotten back to full strength over the last month:
The above play shows the Pistol’s benefit when running Counter. Though some teams (Ohio State as one) will run that Counter play from the Shotgun with the RB to the QB’s side, it takes time and a special RB to be able to come across for the hand off and then reverse field to follow the pullers. By putting the RB directly behind the QB, it lets him take the initial counter step while keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, ultimately making it easier to get back behind his pullers.
We have yet to see Nebraska run any sort of Draw from the Pistol, nor any true Power or Toss plays. I’m not sure whether they will, as they haven’t used Power at all this year and they tend to like Draw out of the I formation or from under center. They certainly could, though I think it’s more likely we’ll see the Pistol featured mostly with Outside Zone and then maybe a touch with Counter or on Inside Zone Reads.
Up until the Iowa game, the Pistol had been exclusively a running look for Nebraska. They tagged one Outside Zone running play with a Bubble screen RPO against Maryland, but otherwise the Huskers hadn’t run any true passing plays from the look. Against the Hawkeyes, however, we saw Langsdorf start to use the Pistol in Nebraska’s play action passing game:
Nebraska hasn’t used the Pistol in its true screen package, either with its RB on the Slip or Flare screen that the Huskers like to use or with WR/TE screens. We also haven’t seen the Huskers try to push the ball downfield with true drop back looks out of the Pistol. I think at least one of those things changes against the Volunteers, as it wouldn’t surprise me to see Langsdorf rely heavily on the screen game because of the Vols’ aggressive defensive line.
Wrapping It Up
Though the Pistol didn’t make an appearance in the first half of the season, the Huskers have used it extensively in the second half of the season, receiving its most frequent use in our last two games against Iowa and Maryland. I expect that trend to continue, as extra weeks to prepare for the bowl game have given Langsdorf plenty of time to install new stuff to complement our standard looks. Though Ryker Fyfe isn’t a threat to run the zone Read out of the Pistol, he does have the ability to throw the dropback passes out of it, and he also throws the screen package much better than Armstrong. If you put me on the spot, I think you’ll see the Pistol 5-10 times against the Volunteers, including a couple of Outside Zone plays and a screen play or two as well.
As for its continued viability in the Riley/Langsdorf offense, it remains to be seen. I went back through some Oregon State film and couldn’t find a time where Riley had used the Pistol. There’s no reason why they couldn’t use it with Tanner Lee or Patrick O’Brien, as it’s not necessary to have a true dual threat QB to run it. And with defenses starting to set their front based on where the RB lines up in Shotgun, the Pistol seems a natural fit to create defensive indecisiveness in setting that front.
In any event, look for the Pistol tomorrow during the game and see what new stuff, if any, Langsdorf runs from it.