Introducing the 49ers Pistol offense

This will keep B1G defensive coordinators up studying very late this offseason.

The Pistol offense took the NFL by storm last season, most notably by the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Collin Kaepernick. 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh used the Pistol formation at Stanford with Andrew Luck, then incorporated it into his NFL playbook. Many thought that the Pistol was just a college gimmick and an NFL fad like the wildcat formation but Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and other dual threat quarterbacks will have something to say about that.

Kaepernick excelled in the Pistol offense at Nevada under Coach Chris Ault, the creator of the Pistol offense, and Braxton Miller possesses some of the same traits as Kaepernick. When one thinks of the Pistol, they think of just the read option but in reality, a variety of running plays can be run out of the formation. There’s the read option, counter, power, lead, inside trap, quarterback sweep, and almost anything else that is run out of a pro-style formation. Also, with the quarterback at 4-5 yards, he is still a serious threat to pass the ball and that is what makes this offense very difficult to stop when it is ran correctly. I can only imagine Meyer watching 49ers’ film and salivating over the thought of Miller, Carlos Hyde and two other playmakers (B. Dunn and R. Smith in practice) in the same backfield.

Read Option:

Here are a few screen shots of the 49ers in the Pistol versus the Bills last year. They’re in a 2- back Pistol alignment. Kaepernick is going to put the ball into RB Kendall Hunter’s stomach and keep an eye on the Bills defensive end to see if he crashes down on Hunter or stays home to play Kaepernick. The H-Back will pull across the line of scrimmage and kick out the outside linebacker if Kaepernick keeps the ball or create the hole if Hunter gets the ball.

read option 1Kaepernick puts the ball in Kendall Hunter’s stomach and reads the Bills defensive end. Kaepernick is looking right at him and sees that the DE is crashing down to play Hunter.

read option 2After seeing the end crash down, Kaepernick pulls the ball back from Hunter and runs through a huge hole with the outside linebacker getting kicked out by the H-Back for a huge gain.

read option 3Running the read option out of the pistol will highly benefit Miller and the offense. We saw Miller succeed in running the read option last year mostly out of shotgun for big gains and expect the same but with more wrinkles out of the Pistol.


This is the 3- Back diamond formation of the Pistol that was seen at practice on Tuesday by 11 Warrior’s Kyle Rowland. If the two lead blockers get inside to the linebackers, that forces the safety down in run support to make the play on the running back. This play is your basic lead run play that can be run out of basically any formation. (These images below are from

leadThe 49ers used their two very athletic tight ends, Vernon Davis (#85) and Delanie Walker (#46) in front of Frank Gore (#21) as lead blockers. Davis got to the second level and got a good block on an inside linebacker and Gore gets a big gain up the middle with a chance to make the safety miss.

lead 2


There are many, many more plays out of the Pistol that Miller will run this season. This is just a small example of two plays that the 49ers ran of out Pistol that Meyer will implement into the playbook this spring. If executed correctly by Miller and the rest of the offense, this will be an even scarier wrinkle to an already scary offense.

I’ll post a few more of these to elaborate later on and if you want me to breakdown any specific offensive plays or formations leave them in the comments!


  1. Can you break down a play action pass out of this set?

  2. This so much awesome Chris great job…. You know you are a FB nerd when seeing how a play develops gets you amped up!!!

  3. Yes, I will do a play action/ passing game post this week

  4. Great breakdown. I love that Urban is adaptable and creative, looking to others to see what wrinkles they can add to OSU’s arsenal.

    The thought of Hyde, Smith and either Dunn or Heuerman in the backfield just gave me the chills.

    • Seriously. That is some backfield lineup. I imagine that from Urban’s standpoint, if he’s got the horses, he may as well use them.

  5. Chris, this is really good stuff, thanks for breaking it out like this. Can you please illustrate a counter play from this formation?

    The fact that the read option example was against the Bills doesn’t necessarily recommend it, but I still get the point 😉

  6. sportsMonkey says

    Not to disparage Urban’s attempt to innovate, but a few years ago, Tressel sent his assistants to Nevada to study the pistol under Ault. He tried desperately to create a pistol offense for Pryor; which never worked consistently enough to be fully adopted. (Probably because the Pistol requires a halfway decent O-line and someone other than the A/V tech coaching the QB.)

    Anyway some of Pryor’s better moments came out of the pistol, especially in his sophomore year.

    Urban has the benefit of having better players for it this time, and a better offensive assitant staff to teach it, plus seniors who were exposed to it years ago during the Vest’s era. Better chance that it will work this time.

    • I agree that Tress tried to do something similar, but he also didn’t have the benefit of a bruiser like Hyde in the backfield. I love Boom and Saine, but I’m not sure they were the best personnel for this look.

      And less that is said about that OL, the better.

  7. @ken Yes I will… I’ll add a few more running plays and then pass plays.

    @monkey Honestly I’m not trying to sound like a Urban honk or anything but his offensive mind seems to be 10x that of Tress’. I think if Pryor was still here under Meyer we would be seeing him put up Vince Young at Texas type numbers. I feel like Tressel was stuck in the past (can’t complain, won a NC) with his offensive philosophies and Meyer is the complete opposite. Not to mention that offense in college football has changed dramatically in the past couple of years.


  1. […] formation out of the Pistol. They used the same formation and same personnel when they ran the lead play, with Frank Gore (#21) behind Kaepernick and their two tight ends, Vernon Davis (#85) and Delanie […]

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