NFL Analysis


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Rising Again: How the Pistol Formation is Shaping NFL Offenses in 2024

Dec 3, 2023; Landover, Maryland, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) at the line of scrimmage against the Washington Commanders during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The pistol slowly made a comeback in 2023. The formation was used on more than five percent of plays league-wide, per TruMedia, the most we’ve seen in a decade.

With the usage spiking from some of the smarter and most creative offensive minds, there were signs of more usage going into 2024.

Chris Ault popularized the pistol at Nevada in 2005. The offensive formation sets the quarterback aligned about four yards behind the center with the back three yards behind the quarterback. The running back is set like it’s an under center formation but the quarterback still has depth to survey the field in a similar way he would when in shotgun.

At its inception, the idea was to combine the strengths of shotgun and under center offenses, and specifically for Ault, getting a north-south run game while having the ability to run spread concepts in the passing game. His best seasons came with Colin Kaepernick and the threat of a quarterback run as an added element. In 2009, Nevada became the first team to have three 1,000-yard rushers and led college football in rushing with 344.9 yards per game, 49.5 yards over the No. 2 team. 

Because of its success, Stanford offensive coordinator Greg Roman was interested in the formation and visited Ault to learn about it. Eventually, Roman became Kaepernick’s offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL and the pistol helped ignite a run to the Super Bowl. Washington also heavily used the pistol with Robert Griffin III, meshing the Shanahan run scheme with Griffin’s spread concepts from Baylor.

The formation reached its peak in the NFL around those 2012 and 2013 seasons. Eventually, as some of the straight zone-read offenses faded, the pistol also faded away from wider usage. 

The Peyton Manning-Gary Kubiak Denver Broncos used it a bunch to combine what Manning wanted to do out of shotgun with the Kubiak running game, but that was viewed more as a compromise of necessity for the two offensive systems rather than completely overhauling and building on an offensive innovation. 

The pistol can be seen as gimmicky, especially during the NFL boom, when it heavily featured an option component. 

Ault dismissed that characterization early in 2013 amid San Francisco’s playoff run. “Everybody thinks the pistol is just a read, but the pistol is a formation," Ault told the Mercury News. "And from that formation, if you're a power offense, you can run the power. If you're a counter offense, you can run the counter. It's not just a read offense. I think the read offers another dimension to it, but it's really a versatile formation."

This is where offenses are now, innovating the ways pistol can be used as a weapon within the overall structure of the offense. 

No team has used pistol better than the Dolphins, who were second in usage on 20.4 percent of their snaps in 2023 with well-rounded efficiency through the air and on the ground.

The hallmark of Miami’s offense is speed. The passing game hits quickly with receivers getting far downfield moments after the snap and Tua Tagovailoa getting the ball out at the fastest rate in the league. That extends to the ground, where the Dolphins used their speed to get to the edge and created the league’s most dangerous outside run game.

Lining up in pistol accentuates those benefits for Miami. On dropbacks, Tagovailoa is deep enough to see more of the field than he would be under center. That’s helpful for the Dolphins when they use play-action to sell a different run look while keeping the timing of the quick-strike passing game on the table. Tagovailoa averaged 2.35 seconds per play-action pass from pistol and 8.3 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, in the run game, Miami backs get the chance to build up speed by being deeper in the backfield and having the ability to hide where the run is going.

source: MatchQuarters book Breaking Down Your Offensive Opponent

This is especially true because of how Mike McDaniel favors a toss as the exchange from quarterback to running back. Here he explains the benefit of using a toss back when he was the offensive coordinator in San Francisco.

Miami’s running game adds so much misdirection on top of this. There’s all of the motion that Miami uses — a league-leading 79 percent of snaps per FTN — and some deception that comes from the initial quarterback movement.

Watch the play below and focus one viewing on Tagovailoa’s movement. As the motion goes from right to left, the quarterback turns in a way that would indicate a run to that side, but Tagovailoa rotates around to toss the ball for a run to the right side. All of that movement creates just enough hesitation at the second level for blocks to fire off and De’Von Achane makes one defender miss on his way to the end zone.

The Dolphins can then run behind the motion. Again, all of the movement before and after the snap holds the linebackers just long enough for Achane to have a clear path to a 15-yard gain.

The pistol was a key part of the Rams’ second-half turnaround during the 2023 season. The Rams had not used pistol for a single snap from when Matthew Stafford was acquired until Week 5 of last season. They dabbled for a few games in the middle of the year and then after the Rams’ Week 10 bye, they used pistol on 14.3 percent of their snaps, the fourth-highest rate in the league.

Getting into pistol allowed Stafford to operate more quick game — he averaged 2.11 seconds to throw with a 6.9-yard average depth of target — while the run game had more success with the shift to more gap runs up the middle. The Rams had 13.3 percent of their running back runs from pistol go for 10 or more yards, which was tied for third with the Dolphins and Eagles among teams that had at least 20 runs from pistol. For a team that was struggling to find consistency on the ground, this was nearly an instant fix.

With the bulk added to the interior of the offensive line in Los Angeles, the Rams are likely to continue to build on that power run game. The pistol could be a bigger part of it in 2024.

With the loss of Zac Robinson, who became the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, the Rams hired former Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone to be the quarterbacks coach. Ragone was the coordinator in Atlanta for the past three seasons and over that time, the Falcons led the league in pistol usage at nearly 25 percent of their offensive snaps.

The pistol, like under center, is still a run-heavy formation. On average, the pass rate out of pistol was 35.7 percent in 2023. It’s often been used with mobile quarterbacks. The Bears sprinkled in pistol with Justin Fields and the Greg Roman-led Ravens were pistol leaders with Lamar Jackson.

Baltimore’s pistol rate dropped in 2023 compared to how often they used it previously under Roman — just 8.8 percent after 35.2 percent during Jackson’s career prior — but the Ravens picked their spots and concepts better to have their best EPA per play out of pistol since Jackon’s first MVP season in 2019.

Familiarity with the pistol could help with a more traditional run game that will feature the best running back Jackson has shared a backfield with in the NFL. Tennessee implemented some pistol runs for Derrick Henry last season after he had just six carries from pistol in the previous three seasons and 38 career carries total. In 2023, Henry had 42 pistol carries for 192 yards.

The team that might have figured out passing from pistol the best was the Seattle Seahawks with offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. Of the teams that used pistol for at least 50 snaps last season, the Seahawks easily had the highest pass rate at 59 percent and the highest EPA per dropback.

Seattle was able to create space down the field with a number of different concepts.

The Seahawks also ran many different plays from similar looks, specifically one that put two tight ends in the backfield next to the quarterback.

Waldron is now the offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears and could be bringing some of those looks for Caleb Williams. 

Another new marriage could come from the Philadelphia Eagles after Kellen Moore played with some pistol looks during his season with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Eagles and Chargers used pistol at similar rates in 2023 but the Chargers had more success both on the ground and through the air.

Picture this screen with the Eagles’ offensive line and Saquan Barkley on the receiving end.

Even at its peak, using the pistol formation had its limitations. It still does — it's not going to be some magical formula for successful football. But given the rise in 2023 and the creativity we’ve seen from some of the league’s best offensive minds, the copycat nature of the league is sure to encourage more usage and creativity in 2024 and beyond.