By PHIL BARBER
Is the Pistol offense here to stay in the NFL? It has been one of the most popular big-picture questions all week in New Orleans.
Two days ago, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer got a chance to weigh in on the topic. Dilfer was an average NFL quarterback, but I hope you will agree that he is among the very best talking heads when it comes to breaking down trends and tactics in the league.
Does Dilfer like the Pistol? You could say so. He calls the system “the greatest tactical advantage offense has had in years.”
“I know it’s here to stay,” Dilfer added, “because there’s no answer for it.”
To study the subject a couple years ago, when zone-read plays were just starting to pop up in the NFL, Dilfer studied what defenses were doing against those plays at their source: high school and college football.
“The answers for college and high school defenses, if you don’t have superior personnel – which, in the NFL, you’re never gonna have a superior personnel advantage across the board – is to play what we call Cover 0, is take your safeties out of the coverage element,” Dilfer said. “If you do that in the NFL, you’re giving up 70-yard touchdowns. … If the corners have no help, it’s over. So that’s the answer. Well, nobody in the NFL is gonna play Cover 0 consistently.”
Dilfer made a distinction that I think has been blurred by a lot of fans and writers this year. The Pistol is a formation, with the quarterback in shallow shotgun formation, and a halfback right behind him. (The 49ers like to run theirs with another back next to the QB, or one on each side in diamond formation.) The read-option is a play on which the quarterback stuffs the ball into the halfback’s gut, and uses the actions of the defensive end or outside linebacker to determine whether to keep the ball or hand it off.
Some NFL teams, including the Niners, are using both in concert, to dramatic effect.
“The Pistol enhances all your other plays that you’ve been running forever,” Dilfer said. “It enhances your play-action, it enhances your zone game, it enhances your power game. It enhances your movement game. You saw (Washington’s) RG3 kind of fake right and boot left off of it.”
But it’s really the read-option that had Dilfer foaming at the mouth.
“Zone-read itself is genius because it’s mathematics,” he said. “It’s addition and geometry. You have a numbers advantage, that’s the addition. But more important than that, you have geometry, you have angles. And in the NFL, when you’re scheming up ball plays, when these mad scientists are in the room and they’re drawing up XO, they’re looking at front differentials. OK?
“They’re looking at how people line up in fronts, backers displacements, blah-blah-blah. And what they’re looking for is angles. Can we get angles to get to the right people to create lanes? That’s all they’re looking for. And they drop all these different plays to get angles. Well, the zone-read part of the Pistol creates automatic angles for your tackles. And I’ve talked to Anthony Davis and Joe Staley about this, and they said, ‘Our lives have changed forever, because we have an advantage on almost every snap we take in the Pistol, because we have these incredible angles.’ ”
Dilfer said he recently filmed a piece for ESPN in which he broke down film of the 49ers’ offensive line in the read-option.
He saw “Anthony Davis take (Green Bay’s) B.J. Raji, one of the best defensive tackles in football, and move him three gaps. Twice. And then Joe Staley on the other side moving another defensive tackle three gaps the other way. That doesn’t happen in the NFL. Or it hasn’t happened for years. And that’s what this offense is allowing them to do. Oh, and by the way? They can throw the ball out of it, and there’s wide-open passing lanes out of it because there’s so much attention trying to cheat the side they think the zone-read’s coming at.”
There are two main counter-arguments you hear from people who say the Pistol and zone-read are fads. One: Remember the Wildcat? It was all the rage three or four years ago. Then NFL defenses figured it out, and it’s already practically obsolete. Dilfer disagrees, saying offensive coaches can always outpace defensive coaches.
The other argument is that your quarterback will get hit too much running the read-option. He will break down over time, and you’ll be forced to abandon the scheme. Dilfer isn’t buying that one, either.
“Teams that have tried to come and hit the quarterback have got torched,” he said. “Because as soon as you bring the unblocked player – we’ll call him the defensive end – up the field at too steep of an angle, you’ve created a running lane for the back, with the angles of the tackle and guard working up to the next level, where the first one who’s gonna touch him is the safety coming from 8 to 10 yards deep.”
Is the Pistol here to stay? If you believe Trent Dilfer, you’d better get used to seeing it.