Pittsburgh Steelers Offense: The Wildcat and the Pistol

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Pittsburgh Steelers Offense: The Wildcat and the Pistol
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Hines Ward at Georgia

Many things can be said about Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and some of the situational play-calling employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, one thing that you cannot say is that the Steelers are afraid to use the occasional trick play or gadget formation. In this article we are going to take a look at both the wildcat and pistol offenses, and how, or if, they could benefit the Steelers.

The Wildcat

One of the gadget formations that has been in favor with a number of NFL teams over the past few years is the wildcat. The Kansas State University Wildcats under head coach Bill Snyder first used this offense in its current incarnation during the late 1990s. Transitioning to the NFL, the Miami Dolphins first used the wildcat against the New England Patriots back in 2008.

What makes the wildcat unique is that it is a direct snap to a running back behind an unbalanced offensive line. It uses the same pre-snap motion coming across the formation on every play, which makes everything initially look like a sweep. Generally speaking, after the snap one of three things will happen—a speed sweep to the back in motion, a fake hand-off with the quarterback keeping the ball, or a hand-off to the second back that is behind the formation.

Much of the initial success of the wildcat can be attributed simply to the fact that NFL defenses had not seen it before. Today most teams have this formation in their playbook and use it situationally—often with limited success. Once defenses began preparing to see the wildcat it became akin to the old option attack where the speed and discipline of NFL defenses mitigated its effectiveness.

Conceptually the wildcat does nothing that a defender does not have to already be aware of on any other play. It relies on misdirection to make players over commit to one direction or abandon their defensive assignment all together. As long as defenders do not do these things the wildcat is very limited in its effectiveness.

The Pistol

The newest rage in college football these days is the pistol formation. If you caught the game this past weekend between UCLA and the University of Texas (ranked seventh at the time) you can understand why. An unranked UCLA team dismantled a very good Texas defense to the tune of 264 rushing yards on their way to a 34-12 victory. This offense was developed at University of Nevada by head coach Chris Ault in an effort to add a power running game aspect to his spread formation.

The key to the pistol is the alignment of the quarterback and running back relative to the line of scrimmage. The quarterback is three to four yards behind the center rather than the seven to eight yards, as you would see in a traditional shotgun formation. With the running back directly behind the quarterback, his depth level also allows the ball to be handed off two to three yards closer to the line of scrimmage.

This offensive formation has some significant advantages over the wildcat. At its core the pistol is a traditional three wide receiver set with a quarterback taking the snap—making it a true run or pass formation. Most teams, the Dolphins included, execute the wildcat with a running back taking the snap and for the defense this means that they need to be less concerned about a pass. Finally, the closeness of the backs to the line of scrimmage in the pistol makes smaller running backs more difficult to find in traffic once the ball has been snapped.

In the final analysis the wildcat is reliant on deception and mistakes by the defense for its success, whereas the pistol is a more traditional formation allowing plays to develop far quicker than is possible in the wildcat, or for that matter the shotgun.

The Steelers Offense

While the pistol formation helps running backs by getting them into the line of scrimmage quickly, it has another advantage that should be of particular interest to the Steelers and their depleted offensive line. Quick-hitting, running plays mean that offensive linemen do not need to hold their blocks as long. Last week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aside, the Steelers rushing attack could use some help.

The makeup of the Steelers roster this year would provide a really difficult situation for opposing defenses if utilized creatively in the pistol formation. 

Not including the injured Dennis Dixon, the Steelers have three dual-threat players on their roster, all of whom are former college quarterbacks. Hines Ward was a quarterback at the University of Georgia and has already been successfully used over the years passing the ball. Similarly, Antwaan Randle El was a record-setting quarterback for the University of Indiana. Lastly, and probably less well known is Arnaz Battle who was a quarterback at the University of Notre Dame.

That brings us to my idea. What would a defensive coordinator have to be thinking about to prepare for a Steelers team putting Ward, Randle El, and Battle all on the field at the same time in the pistol formation? When he returns from injury, add Dennis Dixon to the list taking the snap from center.

With Rashard Mendenhall or Issac Redman in the backfield running it is still a very real possibility and there would have to be significant attention paid to a pass coming from just about anywhere.

This is not to suggest a new offensive philosophy, just a formation and personnel package to show a few times over the course of the season.

Opposing teams have only so much practice time during a week to prepare for a game. Seeing this pistol all-quarterback package on film will force other teams to take practice time away from their normal routine to prepare for what the Steelers might do out of this formation. In the Steelers' case with four quarterbacks in the formation, the play choice options from the pistol could range from a straight hand-off to just about anything you can dream up.

This article is also featured on Steelers Source

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