Why the Pistol will be back en vogue in 2022
What's old is new again
If this newsletter has been about anything over the last 12 months, it’s been the ongoing turf war between the wide-zone-then-boot offenses and the two-becomes-one, rotating defenses.
For four years, offenses across the league paired the typical wide-zone structure with condensed splits, deep overs and crossers, and deep-breaking option routes, building on the you-go-here-I-go-there style that was synonymous with the spread and filtering it through the prism of the most proficient run-game in the modern era of the league.
Fun was had by all.
In 2021, defenses fought back.
One of the ruling conversations of the 2021 season was about two-deep defenses. Was that Patrick Mahomes’ kryptonite?!??! Shouty TV personalities certainly seemed to agree so. I mean, just look at the numbers, numpty – of course, the fact that any quarterback’s production declines in the passing game when there are, you know, more defenders covering more space seemed to go consistently uncommented on.
But there was some truth within the discussion. Defenses did shift, en masse, to more two-deep safety sets – an act of survival as much as anything else. And yet, as detailed over the course of last season, more so than sitting in the traditional trapping of a split-safety defense (Cover-2/4/6) it was about starting in a two-deep structure and then rolling to a single-high structure. In short, starting with two deep safeties before moving to a single deep safety.
(Though matching -- a hybrid of man/zone coverage – out of Cover 4, ‘quarters match,’ is as prominent as ever before.)
Defensive football has taken on a similar philosophy to that on the offensive side of the ball. Sure, the offense has the luxury of knowing the play-call, but that doesn’t mean that a defense cannot force the terms of engagement. Nor does it mean a defense should be static. In the spread-era (whether a true spread or a traditional offense inspired by spread principles), static is predictable. And predictable is death.
You know the deal. It’s about changing the pre- to post-snap picture. Offenses get pre-snap motions and shifts. That’s what allows them to create confusion and chaos on defense. Movement forces communication. And, by forcing communication, you wind up with miscommunication.
Rolling on defense is the defensive equivalent. As the wide-zone-then-boot systems came to hold a monopoly on the league, one thing stood out above all: Offenses used the ‘boot’ portion to detonate explosives. In the olden times, a boot design fell under the concept of the ‘waggle’, a short-yardage, chain-moving play. Not anymore. No. If an offense is going to go through the hassle of the play-fake, of shifting the launch point, of baiting the linebackers, of forcing a safety to hesitate, of tempting the other safety up into the box, you best believe they’re taking a deep shot.
How do you slow quick-trigger quarterbacks spinning out of the fake exchange and slinging the ball to the streaking deep over route? You add extra levels into the defense. You change the picture. You line up one way when the quarterback is facing you and then shapeshift when he turns his back.
I detailed a year ago how defenses were looking to counter the boot shots. Mostly: Playing match-quarters coverage, sinking into ever-increasing shells, and focusing on ‘greenlighting’ the quarterback, even when he was handing the ball off and not faking it.
Yet, while that basic premise held true throughout the season, the most effective part of the defensive fightback was changing the pre- to post-snap picture. It was not about the specific coverage (though six-weak was typically the call of choice) but about defensive coordinators shifting their mindsets. A single-high coach could still get to their entire coverage menu. But, rather than getting to the same shell through a static look, better to roll one of the safeties, to get players playing ‘top down’ and to use the offensive design against itself.
It's pretty simple: As the quarterback turns his back to carry out a play-fake, he cannot see what’s going on behind him. As the quarterback turns around to scan-then-fire, the shell he saw at the snap is different from the one he sees after he’s carried out his fake. Extra beats to the decision-making process give pass-rushers a better chance of getting to him, forcing the quarterback to speed up his clock, and forcing mistakes.
(Add that to the volume of zone-pressures and creepers, which use the same mindset, and it’s easy to see why offenses fell away last year)
It worked. Expected Points Added (EPA) -- the best measure of play and drive value -- fell across the league. The top overall team in EPA, the Bucs, hit a four-year low for a side in the top spot. The average of the top ten hit a similar low. The team that finished tenth in the league (the Patriots) fell some way short of the team that finished tenth the year before (the Browns).
The middle class was fairly stable, but the top end of the league bottomed out. Defenses won the latest battle of the schematic trends. It’s over to the offensive side of the ball to find the next frontier.
Some of the top offensive minds were already preparing for the Beyond Times. I’ve talked ad nauseam about the different ways Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur looked to address the problem before it even became a problem, to differing degrees of success.
They each looked to different, broad solutions, though there was some crossover in the macro sense. One crucial change: an uptick in empty formations. Getting into five-wide sets allowed offenses to still overload portions of the field even with an extra man in coverage – it’s why teams across the league started to dabble with 4x1, quads formations. But consistently jumping into empty has its downsides. Obviously.
For one: you’re wholly reliant on your quarterback. Not every quarterback is good enough to carry the team on their back in empty. Some who are good enough to make all the throws aren’t the kind who can play point-guard from the pocket with five wide drive in and drive out. Plus, it puts extra pressure on the o-line, who don’t have the luxury of extra help.
As we head into 2022 and more defenses look to replicate the two-becomes-one model, non-Shanahan-McVay-inspired offenses will look for answers of their own – answers beyond sticking the quarterback in empty. Answers that allow an offense to have one concept flow into the other seamlessly, rather than the staccato mix of bouncing from their preferred wide-zone setup into empty formations.
So, what’s next?
How will offenses counter the counter?
The answer (maybe): The pistol.
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