Punch Drunk Wonderland

49ers, Kaepernick, and “The Pistol”

Football, Pistol Formation, 49ers

The Pistol formation

A term we’ve heard thrown around more frequently since Colin Kaepernick took up residence under center for the San Francisco 49ers has been “The Pistol.” The formation is a key aspect of the read-option offense that the Niners run, so let’s take a look at what exactly this offensive formation is.

First, let’s consider a more commonly known offensive formation named after a gun. The Shotgun formation has been an old standard at all levels of play for many years, and most every football fan is at least partially familiar with the formation’s basic concept. In the Shotgun the quarterback stands roughly 5 to 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage and the ball is snapped back to him from the center. A major benefit of the formation is that it allows for better protection for passing plays by giving the offensive linemen more wiggle room to create a protected “pocket.”

The Pistol is very similar to the shotgun, hence the gun reference. This formation is more or less a hybrid of the Shotgun and Single Back formation. The quarterback stands roughly 4 yards behind the center and the halfback lines up roughly 3 yards directly behind the quarterback. The important part of this formation is that it gives the quarterback both a good perspective on how the defense is lined up and gives him enough time to carry out the read-option. Thus, the key to what makes the formation work is the decision making of the quarterback and his ability to process all of the information in front of him quickly.

In using this formation in the read-option offense, the 49ers are making use of Colin Kaepernick’s quick and accurate decision making and his athleticism. The offense is essentially leaving a man unblocked to force over pursuit. Kaepernick then reads where the unblocked rusher is coming from and decides whether he will keep the ball or hand it off. The selling point in the play is the handoff/fake technique in which Kaepernick puts the ball in the running back’s belly as if handing it off, but waits until he’s fully read the defensive rush to decide on whether he’s keeping the ball or actually handing if off. This handoff/fake often puts the defense in a state of confusion as to where the ball is going, and the end result is over pursuit and defensive players being out of position to act on the play.

Since placing Kaepernick under center the 49ers have ran the Pistol formation between 45% and 55% of their offensive plays. In the NFC Divisional round versus the Green Bay Packers the Niners used the formation in 34 of 75 offensive plays (45.3%) and in the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta they lined up in the Pistol on 28 of 51 plays (54.9%). The mix of Single Back, Shotgun, and Pistol formation has been causing havoc for the defenses that San Francisco has faced. The reason why this offensive style can work rests solely on the ability of Colin Kaepernick. His abilty to read the defense, make quick and accurate decisions, and his athletic ability when he opts to keep the ball and run are the pieces of the equation that make it all work. Add in the fact that Kaepernick is also a very competent passer, and the 49ers offense is a force to be reckoned with. Coach Jim Harbaugh has stated that he feels  the read-option ran by his highly athletic quarterback gives his team the opportunity to truly play 11-on-11, and that personnel edge wins ball games.

Football without an option attack, the offense is basically playing with 10. A quarterback that doesn’t block anybody, isn’t an ineligible pass receiver, basically leaves the defense with one more than you have. But when the quarterback is the threat to run in an option attack, or give or pitch, that gets the numbers back to even, back to 11-on-11.

San Francisco will use the Pistol formation quite a bit against Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII, and the Ravens’ ability to react correctly and contain Kaepernick will be the key factor in the game. It won’t be the first time Baltimore has faced an athletic quarterback in a read-option offense this year. They faced a similar offensive style in Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in Week 14. Baltimore did a relatively decent job of containing RGIII, but Alfred Morris had a big day on the ground. Essentially, this means that while they could contain the QB in the read-option, they weren’t able to react as successfully when the option went to the running back. The Ravens defense is savvy and disciplined, so they have the potential to come up big. At the end of the day it will come down to which team can win the decision making battle.


K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...