Almost two years ago I wrote a piece called “spread vs pro-style: What’s the difference?” where I tried to explain the differences between spread and pro-style approaches to the game and offer some more meaningful descriptions for what different schemes and teams are trying to do on offense.
The landing point was that we should use “spread” to describe teams that are trying to beat their opponents by using space to create leverage and “pro-style” to either describe teams that want to create leverage with big blockers, or else retire the term entirely.
In that time we’ve seen proliferation of a formation and style that has further created the need to retire the “pro-style” label. That’s the Pistol-I formation, which you can see here:
Everyone is probably fairly aware of the Pistol alignment in which the RB is deep and directly behind the QB rather than offset to his right or left. This set also uses a TE on the line and an H-back who’s really more of an offset fullback, but potentially more.
This is usually just part of the arsenal for a given team, but for squads that want to pound the football in the running game and have multiple good blockers on the field, this is increasingly the way to go. If it can be combined with versatile hybrid players at the H & Y positions or a running QB, it offers a truly lethal asset. Here’s how it works.
Marrying the pro-style and spread-option running games
The best part about the Pistol-I is that teams can get the best of both worlds between classic, I-formation football with it’s lead inserts and downhill running AND spread-option tactics that make use of the QB as a runner or as a distributor on RPOs (run/pass options).
Most Pistol-I teams don’t embrace the full range of possibilities in the formation, but the QB’s alignment is essentially the same as it is in the shotgun while the RB’s alignment is the same as it is in the I-formation and consequently concepts from either set are available.
If the offense wants something downhill and straightforward, the QB can turn and hand off to a RB who’s building up momentum and has two extra blockers paving the way for him. Because of the TE/H-back combo there’s not the same concerns as a 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) or 20 personnel (two RBs, zero TEs, three WRs) formation would have about the defense bringing an extra man in the box to stuff the run.
What’s more, in the modern spread era defenses aren’t really building out their rosters with the same personnel and where this really shows up is at the safety position. Back in the day, if you could block everyone but the safety that might not be good enough because he might be a 220 pound dude that was triggering downhill to make a mess of your run game.
Nowadays the 220 pound run-stuffer is playing linebacker and the safety that your blocking scheme may not be accounting for is used to playing in the deep field, weighs perhaps 185 pounds, and may not have either the grit, the knowhow, or just the mass needed to blow up your back in the alley.
However, if teams want to be able to punish opponents for dropping extra DBs into the box, the fact that there is a mesh point behind the line of scrimmage for the QB means they can either add a QB run or pass option to the play.
So if teams just want to run downhill on modern, nickel-oriented defenses they can do so with a play like inside zone slice that can be devastating to the standard Over-quarters defense:
If the QB is a runner, they could add the zone read component to unlock the full potential of inside zone and also handle an old school Under front cover 3 team if they found one on the schedule:
And if he’s a passer they can mix in quick routes meant to get after teams that are aggressive with their safeties such as a bubble route...
...or attack off coverage from the corners with quick hitches:
The full range of spread-option and pro-style concepts aren’t necessarily available in the Pistol-I, but elements of each are made possible by the alignments. For a team that wants to run over opponents with double teams and lead blocks but still make the most of modern QB run concepts like zone or power-read, the Pistol-I is where it’s at.
It’s essentially the modern version of the Power-I sets that Tom Osborne used at Nebraska to combine smashmouth and option football into one, thundering offense. Eventually some Power 5 school will go that route and devastate opponents. Louisville is already halfway there.
Like most every other system in college football, this offense takes on a whole new range of possibilities if the offense has some hybrids and can operate at tempo.
The most valuable component would be a TE or H-back who can run routes in addition to executing at least some of the key blocks in the run game. Players like that take just about any system to a whole new level but the Pistol-I is no exception.
Oklahoma State, who’s pictured in the screen shot above, use Blake Jarwin as a mobile H-back that can execute some blocks on the edge at a credible level but he also has 14 catches for 247 yards on the year. Louisville’s Cole Hikutini has been even more devastating in a similar role with 500 receiving yards on 35 catches already in 2016.
The RB/WR hybrid can also be effective in this set, as the RB or even moreso as one of the WRs moving across the formation on sweeps or running the quick routes outside that can be tied to the runs with run/pass options.
If the QB is a runner that can handle the option, it opens things up considerably for everyone and allows the H-back to be more of a receiver since the offense can account for a DL with the option read rather the H-back’s block.
Throwing the ball
This isn’t a good formation for a passing-oriented offense save for as a change of pace when they want to run the ball. There are fewer good receivers on the field in position to attack with those big TEs packed in tight, the reads in the middle of the field can get muddied, and everyone has less space to work in.
However, it’s a very good formation for setting up big outside receivers that run good routes and can’t be covered without safety help. It’s no different than the traditional I-formation for setting up play-action and one-on-one matchups outside, or for getting max protection options to protect the quarterback from blitzes.
Oklahoma State is powered by QB Mason Rudolph throwing to WRs Jalen Mccluskey (57 catches, 670 yards) and James Washington (50 catches, 974 yards) but they regularly role out the Pistol-I or Spread-I to ease the load off the passing game or punish undersized Big 12 defenses with RB Justice Hill (663 yards).
If you have two great outside receivers that can run option routes than blocking with seven makes the blitz a pretty risky venture.
For a team like Oklahoma State, it’s a relatively inexpensive install as it only relies on having a couple of big, mobile blockers to man the TE spots and then Mason Rudolph and his WRs can provide enough of a constraint to prevent opponents from punishing the Cowboys for removing some of their speed and athleticism from the field. Texas has started mixing it in as well to make the most of Heisman hopeful RB D’Onta Foreman, it’s not much fun for B12 defenses to account for with their smaller personnel.
It’s similar to the diamond formation in serving as a useful tool in the toolbox but a little more friendly to the passing game since the offense now has three potential receivers on the line (both WRs and then the TE) who can run vertical stem routes.
So for some teams this is proving mostly to be a valuable package when they want to run the ball and or perhaps take some shots with their outside receivers under the protection of play-action or TE adjuncts to the offensive tackles. For some Osborne-like team, this is eventually going to be the primary way they move the football.
It’s not necessarily the pro-style offense and it’s definitely not the spread. For now all we can call it is the Pistol-I.