One question I get on a regular basis is how does a Pistol backfield change the way a defense adjusts to the spread. When utilized with even formations (2×2), the Pistol can create hesitation in how a defense traditionally sets up against the spread. If setting the front formationally, a defense can align quickly and efficiently to most formations. For most four-down defenses, the front is set to a TE (Over Front) or away from Trips (Under Front) to allow maximum cover downs. The main issues arise when offenses employ the Pistol from a 2×2 or Doubles formation. Like Ace and Diamond, 10 personnel 2×2 Pistol forces the defense to choose where to set the front by field or boundary. If the offense aligns in the middle of the field (MOF), the defense has to make a choice between right or left. Because of the Pistol’s unique backfield alignment, the offense can identify the conflict player and attack, leaving the defense vulnerable.
In traditional “gun” formations the offense has put the back on one side of the formation. Teams can run same-side zones and gap plays (pulling runs), but many utilize the offset running back to read the defensive end or conflict player to that side of the back. There are three main front adjustments for defenses when defending 2×2 gun: 1) set the front to the back (Over), 2) set the front away from the back (Under), or 3) set the front to the field. The later becomes difficult in the MOF. I suggest in my book that a defense should, at the least, set the front to the back to maximize Sam’s cover down and deter read side RPOs. Versus a true even set like 2×2 Pistol, this can be impossible to determine if in the MOF.
Versus a 2×2 gun formation, the defense is broken into two parts, the read side (back’s side) and the fold side. Against a team the sets their back in the Pistol alignment the offense can easily establish where the conflict player is located and attack. This two-way-go can make it difficult for defensive coordinators to game plan against teams that run Pistol. Establishing front rules against a “gun” team is relatively easy, but to understand how to set the front versus 2×2 Pistol a defensive coordinator must first understand the formation.
The 10 pers. Pistol Doubles formation is broken into two sides because of the front structure. Understanding how an offense wants to strike can allow the DC to predict where he is going to be attacked. As stated earlier, the best way to protect a defense from RPOs and read plays is to set the front to the field to maximize cover downs. Against MOF 2×2 the DC needs to rely on run data to determine where the offense likes to attack. Thankfully, most of the game is played on a hash, so if the offense aligns in the MOF the DC needs to establish a base direction, right or left, and stick with it (knowing most likely the situation will only occur once or twice a game. No need to spend too much time on it!).
Pistol, unlike “gun,” allows the offense to choose who carries the ball. The main way to stop a great read team is to force the worst back to carry the ball, whether QB or RB. This can be done by setting the front, but against 2×2 Pistol, the offense now gets the choice. To the front’s strength (3 technique) is the “give” side. The defensive end to the strength will “hold” his position and take the QB. This is simple option rules. The Mike will take the dive and the Sam/safety will take the pitch (most likely a Bubble). See below:
Opposite the front’s strength is the “pull” side. There is no anchor point (D-lineman) in the “B” gap so the DE can crash down the line with zone away (he has the dive). The Will can “hang” in his alignment to take the QB and the CB/safety will work the pitch (Bubble). Either way, the defense is covering all its bases. The main issue is control. In Pistol, the defense relinquishes all control on who will get the ball if it stays in a static alignment. See diagram:
Three Rules for Defending 2×2 Pistol
Understanding how the Zone Read functions and keeping option principles can alleviate the stress on a defense. That being said, a DC must find ways to create mismatches and put the pressure back on the offense. Most spread attacks that utilize Pistol are waiting for the defense to align and then choose what side they want to run the ball. Keeping simple alignment rules for the players can provide quick alignments versus tempo and allow players to understand what they are going to get (give or pull). When defending Pistol Spread offenses remember these three rules:
- Protect the field. Spread offenses are designed to utilize space. If the offense comes out in Pistol Doubles, set the front to the field (this goes for “gun” teams too). Setting the 3 tech. to the field maximizes the cover down for the Sam (eliminates WR screens – RPOs) because he is taken out of the box run fits. Offenses that utilize the RPO Zone Read are now forced to run the ball or go the other direction. If the offense wants to throw a Bubble, make them do it in less space to the boundary. Even if the offense wants the QB to run the ball, setting the front to the field puts the “give” side to the boundary and ensures the defense has enough support. Combined with Cloud coverage, the Will might not even have to move from his position. The quick trigger CB can eliminate the bubble and a secondary support safety is left as a stop gap. Do not forget the Mike as a plus-one scraper.
- Remember, the Mike is the defense’s wild card. No matter which side the offense decides to attack if using full zone in their read scheme, the Mike can use gap exchange to his advantage and be the plus-one to either side of the formation. Even if the offense chooses to use double teams on the anchor points, the Mike can step to his gap while reading the back. If the back steps to him (strong side “A”) he will fill his hole (he has dive responsibility). If the back steps away (weak side “B”) he can buzz his feet and read the mesh of the QB which will most likely be a pull because the DE will take the dive to the weak side and the Mike can scrape to the inside shoulder of the QB (Will holds the outside). Below are two examples of Mike’s fits versus strong side and weak side Zone Reads: — —
- Use line movement to change the reads. When defending modern spread teams that utilize Zone Reads and RPOs it is important to use post-snap line movement to muddy the reads. A DC does not have to beat the OC, he has to beat the 16/17-year-old QB making the reads. Knowing offense’s align in 2×2 Pistol formations to gain a two-way-go and get the read they want, a DC then must change the front. The movement does not need to be on every play, but enough to keep the QB and OC guessing where the read is going to be. If the offense is guessing then more than likely the defense is winning. Now the control is squarely in the defensive corner. Right where it should be.
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