Terps Film Study: Running Game from the Pistol

The pistol formation has become very popular in football circles over the past few years, mainly due to the success that the San Francisco 49ers have with it under Colin Kaepernick. But the pistol formation goes back a bit longer than that. In 2005, Nevada head coach Chris Ault wanted to find a way to get a downhill running attack going without being under center. The shotgun formation wasn’t good for running out of, as the defense knew which side you’d be running to based on the side of the quarterback that the running back was lined up on. This was the birth of the pistol formation, a staple of the offense that has been used at Nevada ever since.

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Below is an example of a very basic pistol formation (and one that the Terps use with regularity).


The advantages of the pistol formation are abundant. As you can see by the image above, the running back is lined up behind the quarterback, who stands a bit closer to the line of scrimmage than in a shotgun formation. The running back can now run downhill to either side of the line of scrimmage, as he is not hampered by being on one side of the quarterback or the other. The quarterback can scan the defense a bit easier than if he were under center, making passing a bit less difficult.

Another big play in this formation is the read-option. This is really what makes the pistol formation so popular in many peoples’ minds. With a mobile quarterback, this formation can give a defense headaches. Speed options and jet sweeps are the main way to get to the edge of the defense in this formation, along with the quarterback keeping the ball on the read-option. The play-action passing game is huge in this offense, as the defense will be worried about the inside, downhill run.

Now that you have a basic primer on the pistol formation, let’s take a look at how the Maryland Terrapins football team used it last season. I’ll be focusing solely on the running back in this article, and will look at the option game in a later post.

Pistol 11 – Inside Zone Run

Inside Zone Run Pistol Here, we see a basic inside zone run from a pistol formation. Old Dominion comes out in a nickel formation, with 4 down-linemen. Maryland comes out in a basic pistol formation, with the tight end (Dave Stinebaugh) in the wing to the right of the formation. The offensive line executes basic zone blocking, with both the left tackle (Mike Madaras) and the right guard (Michael Dunn) moving immediately to the second level to take on the two Monarch inside linebackers. Dave Stinebaugh moves across the formation once the ball is snapped to seal off the backside defensive end. Stefon Diggs also plays a key blocking role, as he is assigned to one of Old Dominion’s safeties in the direction that the run is supposed to come.

Brandon Ross is tasked to find a hole on the right side of the formation, and he squeezes inside the right tackle’s block for a short gain. Left guard De’Onte Arnett is a big reason for this small gain, as Old Dominion’s defensive tackle was able to push him across the formation and into the lane that Ross had chosen.

Inverted Bone – Counter Run

Counter Run Inverted Bone

Here we see a running play that Mike Locksley loves to use out of just about any formation: the counter. It’s a fairly basic play that always has potential for a big gain. In this situation, Old Dominion comes out in a basic 4-3 formation, while the Terps come out in their “Inverted Bone” formation. Mike Locksley used this formation a lot last season, normally with a lot of success. It is a variation on the old “Diamond” formation, which featured the quarterback under center with two fullbacks ahead of a running back, forming a diamond shape in the backfield. Here, C.J. Brown is in the pistol variation, with fullback Kenneth Goins Jr. to his right and tight end Dave Stinebaugh to his left. 

The players blocking with yellow arrows are executing basic zone blocking, with left tackle Mike Madaras moving up to take on a linebacker immediately. The right side of the offensive line executes a double-team block on one of Old Dominion’s defensive tackles. The players blocking with blue lines are the key parts of this counter run. Left guard De’Onte Arnett pulls across the formation to take on Old Dominion’s play-side defensive end. Tight end Dave Stinebaugh also pulls across, and heads through the hole made between the double-team block and Arnett’s pull block. In this case, Old Dominion’s inside linebacker was in the way and he demolishes him, making a big hole for Brandon Ross to run through.

Speaking of Ross, his job is to sell that the play is going left for a split-second before taking the handoff to the right side. In this case, his blockers do a great job of creating a big hole for him, and he runs for a big 10-yard gain. Although Mike Locksley normally runs the read-option out of this “Inverted Bone” formation, the counter is another reason why he loves this formation so much.

Inverted Bone – Counter Run

Inside Zone Inverted Bone

This is an example of a play that combines the two elements discussed above: an inside zone run from the “Inverted Bone” formation. Here, we see Old Dominion come out in another basic 4-3 formation, with the Terps in their “Inverted Bone” formation. This is a short-yardage situation, so the read-option probably isn’t the best option, and the counter can take a bit of time to develop. Therefore, the inside zone run is a great call in this situation. The offensive line will execute a basic zone blocking scheme, with the right guard (Michael Dunn) taking on a blitzing linebacker. Tight end Dave Stinebaugh will double-team that linebacker, while fullback Kenneth Goins Jr. serves as the lead blocker for Brandon Ross. Goins Jr. takes on Old Dominion’s inside linebacker, while Brandon Ross runs through the big hole created between Goins Jr. and left tackle Mike Madaras.

The Terps only needed a yard on this play, but they got 14. This “Inverted Bone” formation is extremely diverse, and is a perfect example of why the pistol formation in general is a great way to leave a defense guessing. Having two good blockers in the backfield alongside C.J. Brown is also great, but adding their pass-catching abilities into the equation makes play-action passing that much more dangerous. 

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About the author

Zack Kiesel   

Terps Analyst

Zack is working towards a career in law and politics. The Owings Mills native focuses most of his efforts on Maryland Football recruiting and individual coach and player pieces; but also covers Terps Basketball. He has established relationships with Big Ten beat reporters across the conference, which he utilizes in his game previews. Now a Sr. Terps Analyst for BSL, Zack can be reached at: zack.kiesel@baltimoresportsandlife.com.

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