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How the Steelers offense could benefit from the Pistol formation in 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers could turn to this unique offensive formation to help their offense in 2021.

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the never-ending quest to crack the code on what new coordinator Matt Canada’s offense might look like when it’s unveiled in a few months, here are some thoughts on the Pistol formation and why we are likely to see more of it in Pittsburgh in 2021.

What is the Pistol formation?

First off, let’s be clear: the Pistol, much like the “Spread,” is a formation. It’s not a system. Formations are simply alignments; systems are philosophies. Formations include Trips, Ace, Trey, Deuce, Wing, etc. They are names given to the arrangement of players at the line of scrimmage just prior to the ball being snapped. Systems are packages of plays that work in accordance with each other to comprise a philosophy on how to attack a defense. The Wing-T. The Air Raid. The Triple Option. The Run and Shoot. The West Coast.

Most NFL teams are considered “Pro-style,” which suggests a system that borrows from many of these philosophies. They often use some basic run schemes (inside zone, outside zone, power, counter-gap) and surround them with an array of passing concepts (4 Verts, Shallow Cross, Y-Stick, Mesh, Smash, etc.) out of a multitude of formations in an effort to create complexity.

In Pistol, the quarterback aligns about four yards behind center with the tailback directly behind him at seven yards. This puts the quarterback at shotgun depth but aligns the running back as though he’s in the I-formation. Thus, the Pistol is a hybrid-of-sorts between the shotgun and the under-center approach of the I.

Some teams add a third player to the backfield, who often aligns adjacent to the quarterback in King (strong side) or Queen (weak side) formation. This additional player can be a second running back, a fullback, a tight end or even a receiver, depending on how the coordinator plans to use him.

The Ravens in a typical one-back Pistol formation

What are the benefits of using the Pistol?

The Pistol provides several benefits. With the running back aligned directly behind the quarterback, it prevents a defense from setting its strength to the back, as many do when the back is off-set in the shotgun.

For the running back, the Pistol provides depth by alignment. This is important when executing zone schemes since it gives the back a good look at where the seams in a defense are developing. In the shotgun, with the back tighter to the line of scrimmage and initially moving laterally to take the handoff, those seams can be harder to locate. The Pistol also lets a back get “downhill” faster, meaning he can attack the line with his shoulders square and up the field.

For the quarterback, the Pistol gets him away from the line of scrimmage at the snap. This is essential in Pittsburgh given how uncomfortable Ben Roethlisberger has become operating from under center. It also allows him to turn his back completely to the defense when executing play-action, something a quarterback cannot do when the back crosses his face from the typical shotgun alignment. The benefit of hiding the football from the defense during play-action has a significant impact on the ability to “sell” run action on the play.

The Pistol is also a great formation for read-options with a mobile quarterback, which is why the Baltimore Ravens use it so often. The running back can attack the A-gaps between the center and guards easier from the Pistol, forcing an unblocked read-key (usually the edge player) to close aggressively to tackle him. This can open up the edge for the quarterback to pull the football and run. Zone-reads won’t be on the table in Pittsburgh as long as Roethlisberger is the quarterback. Down the road, though, they may be a further step in the evolution of the formation for the Steelers.

How might Canada use the Pistol in Pittsburgh?

Canada did not use the Pistol excessively as a college coordinator but it was included in the offense nearly everywhere he coached. He is bound to see it as beneficial for 1st-round draft pick Najee Harris, who is expected to become the day-one starter at running back. Harris is a big back at 230 pounds and, while he has the burst to be an effective outside runner, is best attacking a defense between the tackles. The depth the Pistol provides should get him downhill quickly and compliment his already-excellent vision and anticipation.

Look at this play from Harris’s 2020 season at Alabama. This is an inside zone run against Auburn. Had Harris been in shotgun alignment to the left of quarterback Mac Jones, he would have had to cross Jones’s face moving to his right to take the handoff. This would have put him on track to attack the line of scrimmage to the right of center, making it almost impossible for him to see the backside cut. From Pistol alignment, he is square to the line and his field of vision is greater. Harris makes the cut easily and picks up 12 yards:

In Pittsburgh, Canada is likely to combine the Pistol with some of his signature pre-snap motion to benefit Harris. Here is a clip from his offense at Northern Illinois back in 2011. He’s in 12 personnel and initially aligns in a 2x2 spread set with one of his tight ends split wide to the bottom of the screen. This forces the defense into a two-high shell. Canada then brings the tight end in motion and has him kick the back-side edge on an inside zone run to the right. The presence of the second tight end in the box creates an extra run gap and the Pistol formation allows the runner to see the back-side cut. He winds the play to the left for a nice gain.

Here’s another. The Steelers love to get their linemen out in front of the running back on sweep plays. These marry nicely with the downhill run game in the Pistol. This is Northern Illinois running a pin-and-pull sweep called “Horn.” The video quality is poor but you can see the center and left guard lead the back on the sweep while the frontside tackle, tight end and motion man all block down inside. The thing that makes this play effective is how the back starts downhill on a path that looks like inside zone. Once he gets the handoff, though, he bounces the run wide. His initial steps muddy the read of the linebackers and keep them from flying over the top to the football.

While rookie center Kendrick Green won’t be as accomplished in space as was Maurkice Pouncey, he moves well enough to be effective. Green’s mobility should allow the Steelers to keep pin-and-pull sweeps as a part of their run game.

The Pistol will also help Roethlisberger. With the now 39 year-old signal caller fairly adamant about being in the shotgun, the Pistol is a nice way to back him off the ball at the snap while retaining the benefits of the play-action passing game that being under center provides.

Watch this red zone play from Alabama. Out of a run-heavy 12 personnel formation, the Tide bluff a counter-gap play to the left. The combination of pulling linemen and Mac Jones’s ball fake freezes the linebackers and allows receiver John Metchie (8) to slip behind the defense for a touchdown:

By being in Pistol, Jones was able to turn his back to the defense, flash the football to Harris and create a realistic impression of a run play. This is a more effective way of holding the linebackers than having to play-fake with the back in front of the QB like in the shotgun. It also allows the fake to occur more quickly than it does from under center, where he must bring the ball back to the runner.

Here’s NIU using Pistol play-action to create space for the tight end up the seam. This is something I’d love to see the Steelers do more of in 2021. With a pair of big, long tight ends in Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers have great targets for concepts like this. The quick play-action is just enough to attract the attention of the linebackers while the short drop should give Roethlisberger both the time and space necessary to read coverage. The Steelers did not mine this area of the field effectively under Randy Fichtner. Canada should reach back into his old NIU playbook and dust off this concept for the Steelers:

The big sell, of course, involves Roethlisberger. He has seemed resistant to running play-action from under center for two reasons. First, he doesn’t like having his back to the defense for an extended amount of time. Second, by the time he fakes, turns and faces the defense, the pocket is already collapsing around him. Out of Pistol, he would fake and get his depth faster while being able to turn and face sooner. This may make Roethlisberger more willing to embrace play-action. If Canada can convert him, the offense will improve significantly.

While the Pistol will not revolutionize Pittsburgh’s offense, it will benefit its two most important players — Harris and Roethlisberger. It will allow Canada to run his entire scheme, use myriad shifts and motions and create greater deception, especially in the play-action game. It should also forge an acceptable compromise between the offense Canada wants to run and the one in which Roethlisberger is most comfortable. For that reason alone, the Steelers should use it more frequently in 2021.