The best coaches in the NFL understand that their teams must evolve over the course of the season, to maximize the strengths of their personnel. The evolution of the San Francisco 49ers' offense has resulted in the clever postseason utilization of the Pistol offense. The unique talents of quarterback Colin Kaepernick certainly played a part in the Niners' decision to incorporate the tactic into their offensive plans. But the fact that the team has used the Pistol on 49.2 percent of its offensive plays in the playoffs -- after employing the formation on just 70 of 969 offensive plays in the regular season -- reflects Jim Harbaugh's willingness to continually adapt his offensive philosophy while making a Super Bowl run.
The Pistol offense was created by Chris Ault, Kaepernick's coach at the University of Nevada. It combines elements of the downhill running game from the I-formation with the zone-read option package of the shotgun formation -- and everything begins with a unique alignment, in which the quarterback is positioned 4 yards behind center, with the tailback directly behind him at 7 yards. In addition, the downhill nature of the running game creates big-play opportunities in the passing game, following strong play-action fakes.
When executed properly, the multi-dimensional offense puts defenders in a quandary at the point of attack, leading defensive play callers to scramble for effective solutions.
The Baltimore Ravens will enter Super Bowl XLVII with some experience defending the Pistol, having faced Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in Week 14. Unfortunately for them, the Ravens had a tough time containing the RG3-led 'Skins, getting burned by Washington's version of the Pistol in a 31-28 loss. Washington totaled 423 yards of offense, including 179 rushing yards on 35 attempts (5.1 yards per carry).
One of the 49ers' bread-and-butter plays is the inside zone. The play instructs the running back to aim for the outside foot of the guard, then decide whether to stay to the strong side or look for a cutback lane at the point of attack, based on the reaction of the interior triangle (nose tackle, defensive tackle and middle linebacker). The offensive linemen work in unison to block defenders in their assigned areas and create room for the runner to pick up positive yards on each attempt.
The 49ers run the play from a variety of formations, but the Pistol really seems to maximize its potential. The 49ers' primary runner, Frank Gore, is aligned at 7 yards, meaning he gets the ball while heading downhill with a full head of steam. This enables him to get to the line of scrimmage quickly and squirt through holes created by the initial push of the offensive line. Kaepernick carries out a zone-read fake following the handoff to attract the attention of the defensive end, taking away at least one defender in pursuit. Additionally, the threat of Kaepernick running on the edge fosters hesitation in the minds of linebackers, creating bigger running lanes for Gore between the tackles.
Looking at some of Gore's most effective runs during the postseason, it was clear that the inside zone has been the primary play call.
In the following screengrab, taken from the divisional-round win over the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers are aligned in a Pistol-ace formation, with Gore at tailback:
In the end-zone shot, you can see how San Francisco positions Gore directly behind Kaepernick, creating a quasi-I-formation in the backfield:
On the snap, Kaepernick immediately places the ball in Gore's belly and reads the reaction of outside linebacker Dezman Moses (54). When Moses runs upfield, Kaepernick releases the ball to Gore. Meanwhile, the clever utilization of Delanie Walker on an arc block keeps the Packers' safeties from immediately recognizing the run; the exaggerated release makes it look like the tight end is running a pass route:
With the Packers fooled by the zone-read action at the mesh point, Gore scampers for a 26-yard gain.
In the next screengrab, taken from San Francisco's NFC Championship Game win over the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers break the huddle in a Pistol-near formation with "22" personnel. Gore lines up behind Kaepernick at tailback, with Bruce Miller to Kaepernick's right at fullback:
With Nicholas flying up the field to defend Kaepernick, Gore takes the handoff and scoots through an alley for a 5-yard touchdown:
In another screengrab taken from the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers are in a Pistol-far formation, with Gore aligned at tailback and Miller positioned at fullback on the weak side (away from the tight end):
At the snap, Gore runs downhill on an inside-zone track, with Kaepernick reading the reaction of John Abraham to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it around the right end. Meanwhile, Miller works across the formation to pick up the play-side inside linebacker:
With Abraham committed to taking away Kaepernick, Gore takes the handoff and explodes through the alley for a 9-yard touchdown:
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The 49ers' success running the inside zone with Gore has forced defensive coordinators to place extra defenders near the line of scrimmage to clog potential running lanes. This collective emphasis on stopping Gore leads to big-play opportunities for Kaepernick on quarterback keepers around the corner. Although these runs are routinely dictated by the read of the defensive end, the 49ers have sprinkled in a few predetermined quarterback runs to exploit aggressive defenders on the perimeter. The running game of the athletic and speedy quarterback has given the 49ers' offense an added dimension, leading to more points from the unit in the postseason.
Kaepernick takes the snap, places the ball in James' belly and reads Clay Matthews. Miller sprints in front of the mesh point to pick up the inside linebacker on the play side:
With Matthews completely fooled by deceptive ball handling, Kaepernick keeps the ball and races around left end for a 16-yard gain, thanks largely to a great block by Miller on the edge:
In the next screengrab, taken from the same game, the 49ers are again in a Pistol-near formation, with James aligned at tailback and Miller offset to the strong-side at fullback:
Walden is fooled by crafty ball handling, leaving the perimeter open for Kaepernick on the quarterback keeper:
The San Francisco signal-caller blows past the remaining defenders on his way to a 56-yard touchdown.
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The Pistol offense definitely has made San Francisco a more explosive running team, but the re-emergence of the deep ball has been just as crucial in getting the Niners to New Orleans. Kaepernick is averaging 9.5 yards per passing attempt during the postseason while still completing 63.5 percent of his passes for three touchdowns against only one pick. Those numbers would be considered remarkable at any time of the season, but they're particularly so during the playoffs, when opponents make it a point to take away the deep ball at all costs.
How have the 49ers generated big plays in the passing game? With brilliant usage of play-action tactics from the Pistol formation.
The downhill nature of the running game lures linebackers to the line of scrimmage on run fakes, leaving huge voids in intermediate areas and opening up deep crossers and square-ins. Additionally, the combination of heavy play-action and vertical routes has allowed Davis to get loose in the seam.
At the snap, Kaepernick fakes a handoff to Gore, drawing the Falcons' linebackers to the line of scrimmage. Crabtree is instructed to run a deep crosser over the middle of the field to exploit the void created by the linebackers' reaction to the run:
With Atlanta's linebackers out of position, Kaepernick fires a laser to Crabtree for a 33-yard gain:
This prominent utilization of the Pistol offense has given the 49ers a dramatic boost in the postseason. The offense has been more explosive and productive in all facets, giving opponents headaches in the preparation phase. While Baltimore's defense has shown signs of life during the playoffs, containing three high-powered offenses, the multiplicity of the 49ers' Pistol attack will provide the Ravens with their biggest challenge of the season.