The pistol formation is fairly new to the NFL but was popularized in college at the University of Nevada under Chris Ault. The Broncos didn't waste any time, and on the second play of their first preseason game they unveiled their version of the pistol.
Using this type of formation is wise and especially dangerous with Peyton Manning running the show. In this first picture we see what will be the Broncos base personnel in 2013. Using 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, always five skill positions assumed) in the pistol we see the Broncos match up nicely against a nickel defensive package.
The pistol formation has the quarterback line up four yards back from the center instead of seven yards back like a shotgun formation. The running back lines up behind the quarterback, which is again different from the shotgun where he lines up beside him.
With the running back lined up directly behind the quarterback, a run play can go in either direction. In a shotgun formation, the back usually runs to the opposite side he lines up at. This tell isn't there in the pistol, and it keeps defenders on both edges honest.
The first play is a run play with Ronnie Hillman to the left side of the formation. Look how Manning doesn't have far to go in order to get Hillman the ball and execute a play fake.
Hillman is reading outside linebacker Aldon Smith versus left tackle Chris Clark. If Smith's head is on the outside shoulder of Clark then Hillman will cut inside. On this play Smith's head is inside the shoulder of Clark so Hillman takes the play to the five hole on the outside. The play results in a five-yard run for a first down.
Notice how outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks immediately crashes for the ball carrier. Had this been a pass play, the Broncos would have had an easy completion. Manning is not a threat to run but can quickly turn to throw an underneath route to Wes Welker or Demaryius Thomas. This basic pistol play can set up so much more for later in the game.
No quarterback in the game is better than Peyton Manning at pre-snap reads. When lined up in the pistol formation, Manning can see the field clearly. At this level he can decipher what the defense will do before he even gets the ball in his hands.
The pistol formation can aid the Broncos' passing game. The picture below is the Broncos' first passing attempt from the pistol. Note how the 49ers are showing that they'll send five pass-rushers before the snap.
The first read in the passing game is almost always going to be Demaryius Thomas. The 49ers are giving him a sizable cushion on this play. Notice how on the opposite side of the field we see Wes Welker lined up where pass-rusher Aldon Smith is. This is basically telling the 49ers that if they rush Smith then Manning will simply look for Welker as the hot receiver.
Clearly seeing the field, Manning is able to know his options right from the start. Thomas is an easy throw given the cushion. Welker is the hot read if pressure gets to Manning.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers is once again playing over Welker and this time is showing inside technique. If Welker has to make a break as a hot read, then he'll be going to the middle of the field. Knowing this, the 49ers are essentially trying to bracket-cover Welker with inside linebacker Navorro Bowman.
After the ball is snapped, we see how Smith drops back into coverage leaving Clark with nobody to block. Bowman sits down in the middle of the field anticipating a short route from Welker but that's not what happens.
Welker and Eric Decker both streak down the field on the left side. This is forcing the safety to stay with Welker on the inside and away from the seam route that Julius Thomas is running.
Hillman is open as a relief-valve receiver out of the backfield, but Manning doesn't need to go his way.
On the right side of the field Demaryius Thomas has the room for a comeback or a square in to the middle of the field. He runs the square in and is able to pick up a few yards after the catch. The play moves the chains, and the Broncos march on.
Charting all the pistol-formation plays for the Broncos this season, I noticed an interesting trend.
When the team passes out of this formation, there are usually three guys open at once, just like on this play. Some teams will bracket Welker, as the 49ers did. Other teams will focus more on Demaryius Thomas. Decker is always seeing single coverage, and no team had an answer for what to do with Julius Thomas.
The uptempo Adam Gase offense and the pistol formation go hand in hand. Denver will use both frequently to move the chains and produce big numbers this season.
When asked about defending the pistol offense, All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey had this to say.
I guess it gives you more options as far as the quarterback can see better, you can run the ball still and obviously it’s better than the shotgun when you want to pass the ball. It gives a little bit more advantage to the offense.
Last season the Broncos averaged over 75 plays a game over the last five weeks of the season. It was the Patriots who led the NFL with an average of 74.4 plays per game in 2012.
I fully expect the Broncos to use an accelerated pace this year, with around 75 plays run per game. As many as half could come from the pistol formation. Gase is going to use personnel, tempo and formations to create mismatches the offense can exploit.
This is going to be one exciting offense to watch in 2013.