'Gun control: Teams need balance out of popular formation

  • By Pat Kirwan
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Elaine Thompson/AP
Charlie Whitehurst and the Seahawks are comfortable utilizing run plays out of the shotgun.

Ten years ago, the shotgun formation wasn't part of the West Coast offense. Bill Walsh, the creator of the modern West Coast system, didn't use it and as a result many of his protégé's around the league cast it aside as well.

Snapshot of NFL teams using shotgun in Week 5
Team Shotgun Snaps
Atlanta 20
Arizona 32
Buffalo 29
Carolina 29
Cincinnati 29
Denver 23
Green Bay 33
Houston 33
Indianapolis 24
Kansas City 8
Jacksonville 23
Minnesota 16
New England 40
New Orleans 30
NY Giants 34
NY Jets 15
Oakland 22
Philadelphia 35
San Diego 28
San Francisco 14
Seattle 35
Tampa Bay 18
Tennessee 42

But today, every NFL team has a shotgun package. In many cases, it serves as a staple formation of the offense. For perspective, on Sunday of Week 5 there were 636 shotgun plays called in 12 games, which averages to 26.5 shotgun snaps per team (see box).

Shotgun used to be used almost exclusively when long yardage was needed or late in the games, but not anymore. Now it is used just as much in the first quarter as it is in the fourth. For example, last Sunday the Bills and Eagles came out in shotgun formation 15 times in the first quarter.

Offenses obviously pass more out of shotgun, but should they consider running the ball too? Patriots coach Bill Belichick told me this week that there are opportunities to run the ball from the shotgun, but work must be put in on learning the blocking angles and the run lanes. Not every team is working on those run opportunities.

I spoke to a number of head coaches, offensive coordinators and O-line coaches over the past few weeks about their run game out of "the gun," and they all claimed to have run principles as part of their shotgun package. But numbers from Week 5 suggest a massive imbalance in the run-pass ratios out of the shotgun. As a result, teams are missing an opportunity to expose their defensive counterparts.

Of the 636 shotgun snaps in Week 5, there were only 91 run plays called, or 14 percent. And that includes runs when quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Tim Tebow escaped the pocket. I include those runs because some of them are designed, and mobile quarterbacks have to be considered a run threat by the defense.

Rest assured, defensive coordinators are going to feast on that imbalance unless offensive coaches start balancing up the run-pass ratios. I'm not suggesting they strive for a 50-50 split in their calls, but I do think they have to start taking advantage of what the defense is giving them.

When the Bills went to four Super Bowls in the early 1990s, part of their success was tied to their tremendous run game out of the gun. Thurman Thomas would tear up defenses (especially our Jets) when they built zone-running and counter-trap schemes from shotgun.

The question today is what teams are really building a quality run game from shotgun? Seattle had a major breakthrough this past weekend when they flew across the country and beat the Giants. Eleven of the Seahawks' 35 snaps out of shotgun were run calls, or 31.4 percent, which is more than double the league average. Seattle's game plan looked like a page torn from the Bills' old 'K-gun' playbook. The Seahawks ran for 73 yards on those 11 carries. A 6.6 rushing average is something other teams should envy.

The Patriots always seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to innovative strategies, and against the Jets they ran the ball eight times from shotgun for 44 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings employed the shotgun 16 times Sunday, but five of those calls were runs that averaged 7.4 yards a carry.

When told what I was investigating, one head coach told me, "It's a shotgun world now and there are plays to be had in the run game. Most of the young quarterbacks and running backs coming in the league have been running the ball from shotgun in college, and they may be slightly ahead of the coaches at this point."

Finally, there's one more point to consider. In Week 5, teams completed 302 passes from shotgun, but 146 went for less than 10 yards. Can you imagine how that percentage of short pass completions would change if quarterbacks had a legitimate play-action pass principle in shotgun? If teams are going to continue to expand the shotgun package, they are going to have to do a better job of developing the run game out of that formation, which in turn will create an effective play-action pass game out of the gun.

The evolution of the NFL continues…



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