Pistol formation could be Chiefs' not-so-secret weapon on offense
Andy Reid has long run his variation of the West Coast offense. And yet, after being hired as the new head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, he wasted little time bringing on Brad Childress as a "spread game analyst" and Chris Ault, innovator of the growing-in-popularity pistol offense.
While Reid has had too much success over an extended period of time in the NFL to scrap his strategies completely, those hires send a message that he's ready to pull out all the stops on this offense. His ability to do so starts with two players: Running back Jamaal Charles and new QB Alex Smith.
Charles could be the biggest beneficiary of Reid's arrival -- during his time with the Eagles, Reid preferred to find a versatile No. 1 running back and lean on him heavily throughout the season.
"Andy Reid has an offense that puts running backs in space, puts me in position to be successful," Charles said last week on the NFL Network. "I'm blessed to be a part of this."
Smith might feel the same way, too, especially if Ault helps Reid put into place a pistol-heavy playbook. Smith's former team, the 49ers, took advantage of that formation throughout its Super Bowl run last season; and Colin Kaepernick, who bumped Smith from his starting role, played under Ault at Nevada.
The pistol often is viewed as a run-first attack (and Ault's approach at Nevada lends credence to that thinking). However, it's in the scheme's misdirection and play-action that Smith could find success.
No quarterback in the league had a better completion percentage on play-action passes last season than Smith, who connected at a blistering 77.6 percent clip there -- well ahead of Kaepernick's 59.4. The pistol can be susceptible to blitzes, but mobile quarterbacks can keep all elements of under-center and shotgun-based formations available, including read-option plays.
Below, a look at a fairly typical pistol set from Ault's 2010 Nevada team (with Kaepernick at QB) -- two wide receivers, a tight end on each side of the line, and a single running back deep in the backfield.
This was a well-disguised play-action pass, with Kaepernick faking a handoff to his back. The eventual target, the tight end on the left side of the line, pinched down to help block a defensive end, while Kaepernick rolled to his blindside. Both receivers and the second tight end all released downfield.
Example No. 2 from that Nevada-BYU game a few years back ...
Similar set, but with one tight end on the line and an H-back moving in front of Kaepernick at the snap. This play helps exemplify why teams are trending toward the pistol. There were no fewer than four immediate options for Kaepernick at the snap: a jet sweep to the H-back, a handoff to the running back, a QB run or a pass (plus, five pass-catching options there).
Kaepernick again rolled to his left after faking a handoff, this time to fire downfield for a big gain. Check out how many BYU defenders were cheating toward the line after that play-action, with their eyes caught in the backfield:
That's nine, in case you lost count. Smith may not have the mobility to run from the QB spot like Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson can in the pistol, but he's plenty athletic enough to clear the pocket and keep the defense off-balance.
Many of the pistol's pass plays, especially those including play-action, also can be run from under center. But the pistol changes the directions from which those fakes can occur, plus gives the QB some extra starting room between himself and the line.
Reid has never shied from play-actions. Last season, Philadelphia QBs Nick Foles and Michael Vick combined to throw 136 passes off play-action fakes. Only five quarterbacks around the league topped that number: Christian Ponder, Peyton Manning, Griffin, Cam Newton and Tom Brady.
It's no secret, either, why Charles might like a Chiefs offense utilizing more of these calls. Charles has an abbreviated background with the pistol -- the Chiefs ran it during his rookie season, 2008, after they were forced to turn to Tyler Thigpen at quarterback.
"[Running backs] want to run downhill," Thigpen told SI during an interview last offseason. "If they’re beside you [in a shotgun], they have to run sideways. It was an opportunity for us to be able to put them in a better spot."
Again, here's Nevada in one of its base pistol sets -- two WRs, one RB, two TEs:
The tight end on the right side of the line stayed in to block for this play, while both the center and right guard pulled. By the time Kaepernick handed the ball off to his running back, Vai Taua, both of those linemen had cleared the edge of the line. Taua headed straight for that hole.
Taua was able to head vertically as soon as he took the handoff and had a good eight yards of steam by the time he hit the line of scrimmage. This is what Thigpen was referring with "downhill" running.
No matter how the Chiefs opt to line up Smith and their other skill-position pieces on the field, the plan will be to get Charles running north and south. That's a sea change from the zone-blocking scheme implemented by former coordinator Brian Daboll last season -- that scheme relies more on sideline-to-sideline, one-cut work from its back.
How creative Reid and new offensive coordinator Doug Pederson get beyond that remains to be seen. Smith played in a spread offense in college and the 49ers obviously employed the pistol last season.
The playbook will stay Reid's -- had he wanted a full-bore pistol offense, Ault would have been made offensive coordinator. However, the wheels appear to be in motion with regard to how best to get the football out of Smith's hands and into the arms of Charles, Dwayne Bowe, Jonathan Baldwin and the Chiefs' tight ends.