Inside the Playbook: Pistol Offense

The history of the Pistol formation and how it can speed up your offense.

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Today we will take you through the Pistol offense, originally called the “Shotgun I” by its creator Michael Taylor of Mill Valley, and popularized by Chris Ault at the University of Nevada. The offense continued its march into every coach’s playbook from the success that the Washington Redskins had running the offense with Robert Griffin III, and the San Francisco 49ers had with Colin Kapernick, who coincidentally went to Nevada. Below, we will break down Ault’s offense, and two other variations.

History of the Pistol Formation

One of the most innovative offenses in football was actually born out of a softball game. Michael Taylor came up with the idea of the offense during a conversation with his softball teammate, who happened to be the coach of Division III Ohio Northern University. The coach told him he needed to go a new direction - his QB was tall and slow, but his running back was a speed demon. Taylor spent a week coming up with formations to help his friend’s team maintain a solid running game, but also keep the quarterback comfortable in the pocket. Taylor created a full complement of plays to run next to both an I back and an offset back.

After being the head coach at Nevada for over 20 years, and needing something new to innovate the ground game, he invented the single back formation in the Pistol offense, which is at its most basic form, below.


At the time, the offenses of the WAC were primarily pass-oriented, and Ault wanted to find a way to run using zone blocking techniques that would get the ball to his running backs quicker, but with the RBs accelerating towards the line of scrimmage. By putting the RB seven yards back of the line of scrimmage, and three yards behind the QB (who is in a variation of the shotgun), the RB gets the ball quicker, and is in full acceleration once he hits the line of scrimmage. Ault said he preferred this, as it kept Nevada running a “north-south” ground game, rather than an “east-west” one that was from the spread.

The advantage of the pistol is that it still maintains a spread-like look, which spreads the defense out, but the RB, who is hidden, keeps defenders honest, as they do not know whether the play will be a run or pass, nor which direction it will go. The pistol also allows a QB to easily run a play-action play if needed.

The Call: Pistol DT Ray 31 Jet Sweep

If used effectively, the jet sweep is one of the more deadly plays in football. Popularized in 2013-14 with speedsters like Cordarelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Percy Harvin (formerly) of the Seattle Seahawks running so fast, and attacking the edge of a defense quickly.

The basic jet sweep can be run when a quarterback is either under center, in the shotgun formation, or in the pistol. There is a wide receiver in motion parallel to the line of scrimmage, and in the pistol, the ball is snapped right before the motion man runs in front of the QB. The QB gives the ball to the man in motion and fakes the handoff to the running back that is opposite of the sweep.

In this variation of a jet sweep, the fullback is the lucky winner of the handoff.


The quarterback is in the pistol formation, 3.5 yards from the center. Once he takes the snap, he opens to the playside, and his first step is to hand it off to the fullback, who should be hitting the hole hard in between the left tackle and the center. The second step for the quarterback will be to fake the handoff to the Z receiver (far right circle), who is in motion. All this time, the quarterback should have eyes down the field, and have his hands in a pre-throwing formation.

The halfback and every lineman will be blocking their men straight up, while the Y receiver (far right in between the Z and the tight end) will strike all the way to the third level defender (safety), hopefully furthering the hole on another level for the fullback. In this case, the receiver is actually the decoy, rather than the main attraction of the jet sweep.

The Call: Pistol Zip 9 Jet Sweep

Another variation of the same play has the receiver going in motion and actually taking the handoff. In this case, the down lineman will be required to perform a technique called zone blocking, while the X receiver (far left) is the corner blocker, and the Y is in charge of freeing up that third level for the Z receiver, who is going full speed. This play is called Pistol Zip 9 Jet Sweep.


This play is similar to the jet sweep dreamed up by then-Colorado School of Mines and current Montana coach Bob Stitt for West Virginia Head Coach Dana Holgorsen during the 2012 Orange Bowl, though with a handoff, rather than a pitch.

How to Defend Against The Pistol

So how do you defend the pistol, or pistol option variations? You can actually create a drill that helps your linebackers to focus on finding the running back.

Joe Daniel, of Joe Daniel football has a drill where he sets an obstacle in front of his running back. Then he puts a dummy, or something large in front of the running back, to make it harder for his players to find the running back than they would during a game. The key, Daniel says, is you have to lessen the worry your linebackers face as they pick out the pistol reads at the last minute during a game.

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