Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Detroit Lions Edition

Hiya, readers. TC Fleming here. With the Cowboys back on their Super Bowl track, I thought it might be nice to look at a fun aspect of the Lions' offense.

This particular wrinkle is the sort of thing that this series exists to talk about. It's an offensive formation/concept that the Lions roll out on a relatively limited basis but one that represents what my small football brain thinks is an exciting football innovation. I'm talking about the Pistol. The formation/offense was first used by the Nevada Wolfpack for the 2005 season. In every season since then, they've made a bowl game (if that doesn't seem sufficiently impressive, remember that they're Nevada) and had some pretty lofty offensive rankings. The Chiefs, Dolphins and Bills have all fiddled with it at some point, but the Lions are the team running it most often this season.

According to the narrative, Scott Linehan, the Lions' offensive coordinator, was speaking at a coaching clinic held by the University of Alabama. His connection to the university would appear to be Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who worked on the same staff as Linehan at Louisville. Linehan's flight out of town after the clinic was cancelled, and with the extra day, Linehan spent the time watching film of Alabama running out of the pitsol (a formation that, incidentally, McElwain says he scrapped because he was "bored with it") and talking with McElwain about how the plays worked. Linehan, apparently, is not bored with the pistol and used it in all four of the games of theirs that I watched (Bears, Giants, Redskins and Bills).

The pistol itself is a formation where the quarterback is lined up about four yards deep in the backfield with the running back behind him at about seven yards. It's designed with the intention of getting some of the benefits of the shotgun formation (the ability for the quarterback to more easily survey the field) without losing the benefits of the I-formation (downhill running). It also has its own unique advantages. The quarterback somewhat obscures the linebackers' ability to see the running back. The running back gets the ball so quickly and deep in the backfield that he has more time to pick his holes and watch the blocks develop. It also allows for the sort of play fakes that happen under center but aren't available from the shotgun. Handoffs happen so quickly in the shotgun that there isn't an extended motion by the quarterback. In the pistol--and the I-formation--there's the motion of going backwards to hand off the ball and such that do a lot more to sell the threat of the run. In the games I watched, the Lions passed 16 times and ran only 7. Still, it's a run-minded formation. The play action is a big player, and even without it, it does more to suggest a run pre-snap than the regular shotgun.

The Lions lined up in a typical Pistol formation

One of the reasons Nevada uses the pistol is because it's pretty well suited for an abnormally wide variety of runs. It's effective with the normal compliment of runs you see from the I-formation, with zone runs and with option runs like the zone-read and the veer. With Shaun Hill not presenting any sort of run threat, the Lions only use the former two sets of plays.

Of the Lions' seven runs I saw, three appeared to be some sort of zone run. The specific play detailed above happened against the Bills. The play follows all of the same ideas as the zone-running plays we discussed when examining the Giants. The linemen are pushing the defenders laterally and the running back aims for the outside but is looking for a crease to open up for him to cut through. Though a crease did develop, it closed quickly when guard Rob Sims fails to hold his block. Sims's defender throws him aside and stops the play after one yard.

Some variation of this next play accounted for three more of the Lions' runs. This is more your I-formation-type runs. This is how I kind of figured all running plays were designed when I watched football as a kid. There's a pre-determined gap that the running back is aiming for, and all of the blockers on one side of the gap push their defenders to the right while all the blockers on the other side push their defenders to the left. The backside guard pulls and goes into the gap to get more bodies at the point of attack.

This incarnation of that play was run on a third-and-1 against the Giants that picked up the first down. In this particular example, the gap the running back is aiming for is on the outside shoulder of number 89, Will Heller, and the pulling guard is going outside Heller. But that's just for this play. The Lions other two similar plays went through the C gap. On this play, the pulling guard misses on his block. That holds Jahvid Best to one yard, though he does have the first down by that point. Not holding blocks long enough or missing them entirely were consistent problems on all of the Lions' rushing attempts.

Ideally, those runs make the defense pause when Shaun Hill turns around to ready a handoff to the running back. That action can slow the pass rush, putting fear into them that they're running their way out of the play. It can cause the underneath defenders to step forward in anticipation of the run, opening up zones behind them. Or it can hold the safeties, putting them out of place and allowing the receivers time to get behind them.

On this play-action pass, the fake to the running back gives the quarterback something productive to do while Calvin Johnson executes his fairly slow-developing route and provides that ancillary benefit of slowing the rush. Johnson appears to be running a post, and the corner defending him reacts to that by retreating quite a bit in an attempt to keep the play in front of him. Johnson isn't running a post though, he;s just looking to push the corner off of him so that he can stop, turn back to the quarterback and receive the pass. He does this so effectively that he not only has room to make the completion, he has room to put a move on the corner and add yards after the catch.

Having Nate Burleson running as he does across the formation makes it an easy read for Hill. There's a concentration of defenders aligned near the two receivers on the field. With them going in opposite directions, Hill can throw it to whichever one has the fewer defenders covering him. It's a nice concept that is run by plenty of NFL teams that do not use the pistol. But since it's pretty much a two-man pattern with only the receivers looking to catch a pass downfield, it does need the play-action element. Seven defenders covering two receivers will always favor the defenders unless you can compromise those defenders with some play action. The pistol helps sell that play action. However, it's a passing play so being in the shotgun allows Hill to more easily and quickly diagnose which receiver to throw it to and gives him those extra ticks to wait for them to come open.

I hope this has illustrated that the pistol makes a lot of sense. If this formation is something you would like to hear more about (possibly because I haven't explained it nearly well enough), there are several great articles that have been written about it. I applaud a team like the Lions for using every possible edge they can find in order to regain a sense of being a real football team. That said, they still haven't been terribly successful with the pistol. They average just over one yard a carry on rushing attempts with a long run of three yards. On passing attempts, they have a quarterback rating of 45.8. Still, I'm convinced that these are good and exciting ideas that more NFL teams could stand to benefit from. The Lions personnel just aren't very good at sustaining blocks, and there's not a formation in the world that can fully overcome that.

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