How do you stop the pistol offense?
That's the question defensive coordinators around the NFL should pitch to their college colleagues prior to facing the Washington Redskins.
While other teams like the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have mixed in elements of the option from the spread formation to enhance the skills of their athletic quarterbacks, the Redskins have taken it to another level by extensively featuring the pistol offense in their game plan. The quirky formation has enabled Washington to field the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense (167.2 rush yards per game) with two runners, Alfred Morris and Griffin, ranking among the top 25 rushers in the league.
I was originally exposed to the offense as a scout for the Panthers in the mid-2000s when I visited the University of Nevada-Reno on a school call. Chris Ault, the head coach of the Wolf Pack, is credited with creating the pistol to blend the strengths of the downhill running game from the I-formation with zone-read concepts from the spread offense.
Ault accomplished this feat by crafting a formation that places the running back seven yards from the line of scrimmage, directly behind the quarterback in an I-formation alignment. This prevents defenders from anticipating the direction of the run, and allows the running back to take the ball heading downhill between the tackles on various I-formation plays.
By aligning the quarterback at three yards to field a shotgun snap, the pistol creates opportunities for quarterback runs, bubble screens and play-action passes that are staples of the spread formation.
The Redskins' version of the pistol offense represents the perfect marriage of the hottest pro and college offensive principles. The running game is essentially built upon the zone-based blocking scheme that Mike Shanahan (and Alex Gibbs) popularized in the late 1990s with the Denver Broncos. The system -- which relies on a combination of reach, double-team and cut-back blocks from offensive linemen at the point of attack to create vertical seams for ball carriers -- is one of the most difficult schemes to defend when executed properly.
To complicate matters, Shanahan has incorporated several zone-read concepts to take advantage of the potent option running game from the spread offense. The clever use of deception and misdirection creates uncertainty and hesitation in the minds of defenders, resulting in big plays for Washington on the ground. With Robert Griffin III adept at executing the offense due to his extensive experience running the zone-read in Baylor's spread, the Redskins have unleashed an innovative offensive package that opponents are finding tough to defend.
1) Outside zone
The outside zone play has been the foundation of Shanahan's running game since his days in Denver. The play instructs the offensive line to step in the direction of the play call in unison and execute a reach block on the defender in each lineman's respective area. If the defender's shaded alignment prevents a blocker from reaching him, the Redskins will double-team the defender initially to stop his penetration, before releasing one of the blockers to climb to the second level and lock onto a linebacker. The running back will take his initial steps to the outside foot of the play-side offensive tackle. He will read the flow of the defense and make a decision to bang (attack the hole vertically), bounce (take the ball around the corner) or bend (cut the ball back against the flow of the defense). The goal is to avoid negative runs and pick up at least four yards on each rushing attempt.
When the play is blocked properly, the running back has easy reads. Redskins opponents find it difficult to keep Morris from finding creases on the edge (as evidenced by the video just above). As a result, Morris already has broken the Redskins' single-season rushing mark for a rookie with 1,106 yards. More importantly, he has given defensive coordinators sleepless nights contemplating ways to slow down the Redskins' vaunted zone-running game.
Credit Mike and Kyle Shanahan for adapting their offensive scheme to fit the talents of Griffin. Instead of forcing the rookie quarterback into a traditional pro-style offense, the Redskins have utilized several concepts borrowed straight from Griffin's playbook at Baylor.
One of the biggest concepts used by the Redskins has been the zone-read package. In theory, the zone-read gives the quarterback the option of handing the ball to the running back on an inside zone play or keeping the ball and running around the end based on the reaction of the defensive end. This a popular concept in high school and college football, but few NFL teams have attempted to extensively run the zone-read due to concerns about the potential punishment inflicted on the quarterback. However, the Redskins have taken advantage of Griffin's athleticism and clever ball handling by routinely running variations of the play throughout games. Although featuring Griffin as a runner has inherent risks, the big-play potential of the concept has made it worthwhile. The Redskins have amassed 13 runs of 20-plus yards on 379 rushing attempts, while posting a whopping 5.3 yards per carry average. Those numbers rank within the top five in each respective category.
In the screengrab below from Washington's 27-23 loss to the New York Giants in Week 7, the Redskins are set up with a full-house backfield out of the pistol:
Griffin takes the handoff and sticks the ball into Morris' belly, reading Jason Pierre-Paul's reaction to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it and race around the corner:
Pierre-Paul hesitates and pursues Griffin for a split-second, which leads to an inside handoff to Morris:
Morris eventually slithers through traffic and finishes with a 30-yard pickup.
In the following screengrab from Washington's 17-16 win over the Giants this past Monday, the Redskins are aligned in a "Dubs" formation, with Morris at the dot position:
Griffin takes the snap and sticks the ball into Morris' belly, reading Pierre-Paul once again:
Pierre-Paul crashes down to hit Morris this time, so Griffin keeps the ball and races around the end:
This play resulted in a 46-yard gain.
In the next screengrab, also from last Monday night, the Redskins set up in a full-house backfield with Griffin taking the snap in the pistol:
Griffin sticks the ball into Morris' belly and reads the reaction of Osi Umenyiora to determine whether to hand off or take off:
Umenyiora steps inside to attack Morris, so Griffin keeps the ball and races around the end, with Joshua Morgan acting as the pitch man on an option:
Griffin turns the corner with a lead blocker ahead and Morgan on the outside to catch the pitch down the field:
This play results in a wild touchdown when Morgan scoops up Griffin's fumble downfield and races in for the score.
3) Play-action pass
For all of the attention paid to the Redskins' running game out of the pistol, Washington has tormented opponents with explosive passing plays in recent weeks. Griffin has repeatedly connected with Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss, Aldrick Robinson and Morgan on vertical routes following play-action fakes. Griffin's outstanding poise and precision in the pocket definitely helps the 'Skins succeed in this area, but it is the outstanding design of the play-action passing game that stands out the most to me when watching the tape.
Mike and Kyle Shanahan have done an outstanding job of using a variety of play-action passes that closely match the backfield action of their primary running plays. This creates hesitation and indecision in the minds of linebackers and defensive backs, enabling Redskins receivers to routinely run past them on vertical routes. Consequently, Griffin is averaging an impressive 8.2 yards per attempt, which ranks behind only Cam Newton (8.3) among full-time starters.
In the following screengrab from Washington's Thanksgiving Day win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins are aligned in the pistol with a full-house backfield:
With the defender fooled by the fake, Robinson blows by the corner and safety:
The result? A 68-yard touchdown strike.