When you’re talking about gap-style runs in football today, you usually start with power and counter plays. Power plays, roughly speaking, feature a combination of down-blocking and pulling linemen to open holes. Counters are generally subtly changed power plays that have the quarterback and tailback make a deceptive handoff motion and first step to get the defense moving in the wrong direction. The QB makes a long, wrapping handoff from backside to playside, usually with the halfback selling the fake with a backside jab-step before taking off in the right direction. Offensive linemen either block down to the backside or pull to kick-out or seal-off linebackers.
Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams in the 80’s were probably responsible for getting the ball rolling on the modern power/counter game, and Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins teams built it into one of the best known attacks in football. The power/counter game seems to get an added bonus from being the pistol formation because the tailback isn’t visible anyway; instead of making a jab step, the runner can get playside movement to better see the blocking develop and get to the line of scrimmage faster.
Nevada’s “horn” play is variation of this concept, and just might be the fastest counter play in football. It’s definitely been talked to death in terms of execution, though I’ll hit the highlights here and focus a little more on how it works with Nevada’s zone scheme. It’s a bit of a mash-up play, as are most of today’s interesting ideas in the run game. Here’s how Nevada drew it up for American Football Monthly back in 2008.
It has hints of single-wing/Wing-T play with the way immediate blockers angle towards the center, wedge-style. Most of the playside blocks are “fold” blocks where an exterior lineman blocks down on a defender on the line of scrimmage, while the offensive lineman to the inside loops around the block to pick up defenders (usually linebackers) away from the line. The backside is blocked just like the backside on a zone run, with the lineman bucket-stepping towards the play and going for cut blocks on anyone they can’t engage with their hands.
When Nevada coaches talked with AFM, they described the center/guard team as a pure fold block, with the center trying to reach the linebacker in front of him. It doesn’t always work out that way. Here’s another example of the horn play, this time with a twist.
In the diagram above, though, you’ll see the center pulling down the line and wrapping around the tackle, which leaves the middle linebacker untouched. I drew this particular variation because I saw it used in a different manner in a 2008 clip versus Fresno State. The defense is a 4-3 under look, where the defensive linemen slide towards the weak side of the formation and the Sam ‘backer walks up to the line of scrimmage opposite the tight end. With all three linebackers on the field, it should be pretty effective against a three-wide formation.
That’s right, you just saw the center intentionally ignore a guy who’s primary job in this situation is stuffing the run in order to pick up the centerfield safety. Why? Because they take themselves out of the play. The weak-side ‘backer (53) stays put because he’s reading the fake handoff and probably worried about the zone read coming back in his direction. Meanwhile, the middle linebacker (54) is so confused by what’s going on that, rather than either effectively flowing to the ball or attacking the play in the backfield, he holds the gap and gets swallowed up in the wash.
I don’t know if this is something figured out in the booth, part of their regular planning when they get a defense crossed, something identified by the tight end and QB at the start of the clip, or if the center has a blocking rule to pull if he doesn’t see the linebacker coming. Whatever it is, Nevada’s got the Mike crossed up like a Pop Warner player who’s just seen his first fullback spinner.
I also want to mention a more power-oriented pistol version Nevada uses that features a second offset running back. Versus Boston College in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, they used this formation to pitch to the play’s lone wide receiver, and along the way used about every trick in their playbook. Here’s how it looked:
First, Nevada set-up this play with two prior plays from the offset-I, one a simple run and the other a pass. For this play, in addition to the offset-I, Nevada has two tight ends on the field, both lined up to the left of the center, making this a power running formation, though oddly enough, the right tackle is in a two-point stance. Just before the snap, the offset fullback turns and begins running left, only getting a step or two before the ball’s in the air.
At the snap, the blockers on the line of scrimmage block to the left in what looks to the defense like a regular zone play, though on closer inspection they’re shield blocking like they’re protecting a quick QB rollout; meanwhile, the tight end at wingback steps out to block, and the receiver steps downfield to block or catch. The motioning fullback bends his motion into a rocket sweep, the halfback runs up the gut on an inside zone look, and the quarterback fakes a counter handoff before running down the line. The playing is screaming “speed option.”
Then everything changes. The right tackle is floating downfield and waiting. The wingback changes direction and pulls down the line of scrimmage to pick up stray defenders. The wide receiver turns around, too, only he cuts deeper into the backfield and suddenly it’s apparent that he’s the pitch man. The right tackle is sealing the end, and the pulling tight end is a lead blocker.
It’s a testament to the discipline of BC’s defense (and especially linebacker Luke Kuechly) that the play was stopped short of a first down because every single Nevada player involved in this play was part of either a pure fake or misdirection. Add to the fact that this play was set up by two preceding plays that used elements of this third down attempt, and you can probably think of quite a few times where this play could cause serious damage.
Like all evolutions in scheme, the pistol isn’t a “perfect” formation, and neither are the play calls associated with it. As with any shotgun formation, there are times during the cadence where the center and quarterback take their eyes off the defense. Zone blocking and simple reads can help negate shifting D’s, but not completely.
In comparison to under-center plays, not even Nevada’s inside zone is as immediate a threat to the defense as a quarterback sneak, particularly when run contrary to cadence tendencies. Nevada’s short line splits don’t always create angles conducive to pure down-blocking plays, and teams that are familiar with rocket/jet motions will have an easier time defending veer and pitch-option plays than they would against a flexbone or pro-set team, for example. You also have to get skill position players who like running into oncoming DE’s and linebackers. Finally, the obscured tailback can work both ways, as being behind the QB makes identifying incoming blitzes harder.
Of course, you can write a list of tradeoffs for any formation, and I think the evolution of the game will be kinder to this wrinkle than many others, particularly as more teams adopt it. If game footage is any indication, the tradeoff Ault takes most seriously is the ability of running backs to protect the QB, as he’ll occasionally line his backs up in the traditional shotgun. All that said, the single- or double-tight end pistol formation might be the game’s most truly balanced formation, and I imagine we’ll see it become a fixture in the sport.