How Notre Dame Used the Pistol to Perfection, and Why It Works for the Irish
To kick off the season against Temple, Notre Dame brought out the pistol formation, and while Tommy Rees is no run threat, the Irish worked the formation. Rees had a big day, especially early, and Brian Kelly's offense got things rolling in a big way.
The pistol, a formation introduced to the world by former Nevada head coach Chris Ault, has spread like wildfire at both the professional and collegiate levels. Teams at both levels are making use of the formation in a rapidly expanding fashion.
In using the pistol to open up the offense, Notre Dame is no different from the likes of Clemson or the San Francisco 49ers, the formation helps. However, unlike most teams that employ the pistol, Notre Dame does not operate out of the formation to help with the quarterback run threat.
For a quarterback who can run, the pistol gives him and the offense the ability to run the zone read to either side on a given play. There is no need to shift the back to different sides, possibly tipping the defense off to the direction of the play, before the snap.
With the back aligned directly behind the quarterback, the running back has a two-way go on the snap, and depending upon which direction the quarterback calls the play, the back can get to either side. All it takes is an indicator from the quarterback for the back to know which side to approach.
The same holds true in the passing game, as teams do not have to move backs around in the backfield. Rather, they can signal a protection side to the back in the pistol set, and on the snap, he can move to add himself to pass protection on the designated side.
Notre Dame is reaping the benefits of the flexibility of the pistol, even without the run threat at the quarterback position. In fact, because the Irish have lost Everett Golson, the flexibility afforded by the pistol is something that helps make up for the inability to freeze defenders with the threat of a Golson run.
Much like West Virginia last season with quarterback Geno Smith, the Irish are sitting in the pistol, choosing a side to run the ball, and then giving the running back a chance to pick up yards. The Irish have run zone and power out of the pistol, and both Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel have found success.
The true beauty of the pistol for the Irish is that Rees, even without being a run threat, can still keep defenses guessing. Rees gets to open up to his right side on most plays, helping further the masking process. With a full turn, the quarterback can hand off to the offense's left side. With a simple drop step, the run can easily go to the right.
Also built into this is the pass game. The Irish like to operate with a blend of quick-hitters and deeper routes that stretch the field. Each of those plays can get the play-action treatment through the pistol, as Rees opens to his right, in position to make a throw immediately following the run fake.
Instead of a back crossing his face to make the fake work, Rees is able to show ball low and then get the ball high in order to deliver a quick strike. It's still effective in pulling the linebackers up but also more conducive to the quarterback's eyes staying downfield and delivering the ball.
Notre Dame is using the pistol very well, albeit in a way that, given the usual use of mobile quarterbacks, makes it a bit unorthodox. The Irish need the pistol in a big way, as it helps them hold both sides of the defense captive while Rees gets his team in a position to succeed.
Throw in easier pass protection and efficient play action, and the pistol is something to expect the Irish to continue to grow into this season. Game one was a good experience, but as the year progresses, expect more to be done out of the formation.
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