A few weeks ago after the Bears preseason game, I pointed out an odd observation about the Eagles running the pistol.
Seemed as it was only featured on one play and there wasn't any reason to make too much out of it. Especially when you consider Chip Kelly's comments prior to the Fiesta Bowl when a reporter asked Chip a rather uneducated question:
Q. One of the recent trends in the NFL is more pistol formation. People are tracing that back to you. Your thoughts on what seems to be a melding of the NFL and college games.
COACH KELLY: Don't know. Haven't been there. Don't run the pistol offense. That's not what we do.
Chris Ault at Nevada invented the pistol offense. Just retired. Great football coach out there.There'sot of ways to play football. Pistol, don't know that very well. We're more of a spread run team.
Trends go one way and the other. I said this a long time ago, if you weren't in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when they invented this game, you stole it from somebody else. Any coach is going to learn from other people and see how they can implement it in their system. Anything you do has to be personnel driven. You have to adapt to the personnel you have. There's a lot of great offenses out there, but does it fit with the personnel you have. The key is making sure what you're doing is giving your people a chance to be successful.
But last night against the Jets the Eagles ran the pistol 5 times by my count. What is perhaps more notable is that they were highly successful on their runs from the pistol. 5 carries for 44 yards or an 8.8 ypc. So when the great @SheilKapadia ask Chip Kelly the inevitable question to Chip in his next press conference about the pistol, I am sure Chip is going to brush it off or downplay it. Maybe he goes as far as to say it's another tool in our toolbox. EDIT: Turns out Sheil asked Chip about the Pistol last night after the game:
“Yeah, we showed those earlier games when the back is offset, not offset from the quarterback you can run plays in either direction. But we've run that a couple other times in the preseason. But it's something that's always been in for us.”
But the question is, why were we running it? Is it just to put something on film to give teams another thing to gameplan for? Was it just an experiment to see the results? Or is Chip really considering running the pistol for what I believe would be the first time in his coaching career (Edit: s/o to @byajrodriguez highlighting that Chip ran the pistol at Oregon)?
Here's a case for why Chip may indeed be installing the pistol in the 2014 offense. Before I move forward major hat tip goes to Derek Sarley @igglesblog for pointing out and discussing a lot of the things I will break down in this post and even for a rather prophetic comment in one of his columns last year.
As we’ve seen new kinds of “cheating” each week from opposing defenses, I’ve wondered if the pistol formation – where the quarterback is in a “mini-shotgun” only four yards behind the center and the running back is directly behind him – could make things harder to decode. But Chip Kelly has never been a pistol guy and it may be that what we saw in these plays against Green Bay is a portent of things to come.
Derek gives a response to the question, "Why the Pistol?" To dive into a bit more detail on that the point is that the Eagles are largely an inside and outside zone run team. We've obviously had a lot of success running the inside zone and considerably less success running the outside zone. One of the critiques of Chip Kelly's inside and outside zone run game in Oregon was that based on the formation and alignment he was dictating to the defense what the playside was before the snap. The guys at FishDuck.com explain:
How do you stop the Oregon Offense? It is the same way as any other offense and it’s simple. Defeat the blocks. By announcing the play in advance with the formation–we experience more negative plays losing yardage than anyone else.
This is exactly what Nick Fairley and Auburn did to beat the Oregon Ducks in the National Championship game a few years ago. Fairley beat his blocks, and most importantly attacked the mesh and the Oregon run game was slowed down. So this idea of knowing where the play is going is worth exploring and Chip ran into trouble against the New York Giants this past year. Again, as noted by Sarley the Giants attacked our inside zone read with a Nut Stunt and Kelce explains it in the link above. Here's what it looked like:
The idea is for Shaun Rodgers #95 to attack the opposite A gap and run across Kelce's fake. Because he is evacuating his A gap it's up to #99 and #52 to fill that and they do a good job. As a result, you see Kelce whiff on a very difficult block and eventhough Foles is reading Kiwanuka the unblocked edge defender, Rodgers is quickly in the backfield and destorying the play at the mesh. My colleague David plans on elaborating a bit more on the nut stunt in his inside zone series so I will leave it at that for now.
However, again as Fishduck.com explains in that same link, dictating to the defense what the playside is can turn into an advantage for the offense when the defense overplays the inside zone to the playside:
A big reason for the success of the play is BECAUSE we announce it in advance with our IZR formation. Defenses over-react to where the play is going, and it creates huge gaps elsewhere. The RBs in this offense are to check the gap we are attacking, but take a quick look around; if another hole opens up elsewhere that is better—he has the green light to go for it!
I have to believe that one of the things that had Chip Kelly so excited to come coach the Eagles was the opportunity to coach Lesean McCoy. While Kelly and McCoy have had their arguments about McCoy hitting the hole more consistently, he certainly values McCoy's elite cutback ability as it really helps the inside zone work. Let's look at an example against the Packers from last year.
Here is the Eagles standard inside zone formation where the Eagles are dictating the direction of the run based on McCoy's alignment. The run is designed to go to the right and after the snap you can see the Packers defenders are anticipating it:
Watch the two ILBs attack the playside A gap:
And Clay Matthews is crashing down the line as well. From this still, this play looks absolutely dead in the water:
But McCoy shows his elite cutback ability with some help from Brent Celek and turns this into an explosive gain:
Despite plays like this, is not healthy to rely solely on the cutback ability of your running back and Chip was certainly experimenting with ways to evolve the running game and to disguise the direction of his runs. He did a couple of things in 2013 in the second half of the season that still appear to be part of the playbook in 2014.
One was lining up Foles under center with McCoy in a single back formation directly behind center. Here we are not dictating the playside and it could go either way:
Out of this formation we execute our typical run blocking concepts. Celek and Lane Johnson will combo block on the edge defender, Herremans and Kelce on the DT:
And Herremans will peel off his block to get to the second level on AJ Hawk:
Of course the aforementioned play is one of the rare occasions where Chip has played Nick Foles under center. By all accounts and from his college film, it appears Nick is more comfortable from the Shotgun formation. Here's another wrinkle. It appears to be standard inside zone where we dictate the playside to the left (towards Jason Peters). Instead, Celek will pin his man inside and Herremans and Kelce are going to pull out to the backside:
The playside is actually to the strong side on a nice toss play to McCoy:
Herremans kicks out, Celek pins his man inside and Kelce rounds the corner to lead block for McCoy:
And Daryl Washington overruns the play to the outside, but it doesn't matter because Jason Peters is coming from the weakside to take him out:
Absolutely beautiful play and execution. The play goes for 35 yards, but Jason Avant gets called for a downfield hold.
One other side note. Sometimes, we will start the formation with our running back on one side of the QB. But just before the snap we will quickly motion him to the other side of the formation and quickly snap the ball. This prevents the defense from making any last second line shifts because we snap the ball immediately. Here's a look:
Finally, I would be remiss at this point not to remind you of how Chip has designed the offense to ensure defensive players don't cheat too much on the playside. Oftentimes, as we've shown many times before, Chip will always have something cooking on the backside of his inside zone to keep the backside defense honest and to prevent some of the cheating we showed above.
One way, is in this triple option where we use orbit motion where we motioned Desean Jackson to the backside. This (purple), along with the threat of Foles to run (blue) forces to the backside defenders to stay honest leaving McCoy loads of room to run up the gut:
And of course, the most routine way we attack the backside is with the packaged bubble screen:
The defenders need to stay wide to protect againt the bubble or Nick as a running threat, which opens up huge holes in the run game:
This brings us full circle back to the Pistol. Is Chip serious with it, and what is the thinking behind it and of what use can it play? If you've been following along, you'll notice that one of the advantage of this pistol is because of the alignment of the running back directly behind the QB, the Eagles are not tipping the defense off on the direction of the run. It can go right or left. This is the same concept as the play against the Packers I highlight with Foles under center. Except, the pistol gives Chip and Nick Foles the luxury to take a snap in the shotgun instead of under center. With that in mind, what can we do from the pistol?
The first time we saw last night, the Eagles 2nd team OL executed a nice outside sweep play. On this play, the RT, C, and LT are going to pull to the outside (should note the running back is shaded a tad to the playside. Not sure if this is by design or if he lined up slightly incorrectly):
with the two OGs and TE blocking straight ahead:
They kick out quickly and form a very nice wall for the running back:
And great execution on the blocking in space. Also notice a terrific block downfield by Momah:
Think about it. We often struggled last year running the ball outside on either outside zone runs and even on the read sweep I highlighted here. One potential reason for struggling is because in our typical outside zone formation we were dictating the playside. Here, we executed a really nice outside sweep play out of the pistol without tipping our hand to the direction of the playside.
Here's another from last night. This time we have both tackles pulling to the left:
Left guard immediately releases to the second-level:
Excellent block highlight with the yellow circle. Gardner is sizing up his man in space, as is Momah:
Check out this execution!
And Momah with another wonderful job blocking downfield:
Perhaps most notable from all the plays highlighted above is the wonderful play and execution of our 2nd team OL throughout the preseason. OL depth was perhaps one of the biggest question marks heading into the 2014 season but I for one feel a lot more comfortable about it than I did one month ago.
In closing, we'll see what the beats can get out of Chip Kelly regarding the pistol. It bears noting that we did not run the pistol at all with the 1s with Nick Foles or Lesean McCoy. It's highly possible they are not comfortable with that. However, based on how I outlined things above, if I'm a betting man, I suspect we'll see a little pistol in the 2014 offense.
Time for some REAL football!!!