Scheme Breakdown: Pistol vs. Blur

By andrewlittle

While watching the game Saturday you’ll probably hear announcers speak frequently about Nevada’s “Pistol” formation as well as Oregon’s “Blur” offense. Are these formations, schemes, or just neat nicknames? Lets break it down!

Nevada’s Pistol Offense
The name derives from the formation that Nevada will line up in, which is a relatively standard shotgun spread with a couple wrinkles. First, the QB lines up about four yards behind the line of scrimmage which is a shorter drop than a typical shotgun formation (around seven yards). Also, instead of being to the left or right of the quarterback, the RB lines up directly behind the QB. By doing this, the offense doesn’t reveal which side they’re likely to run to, keeping defenses honest.

Nevada coach Chris Ault came from an “old-school” pro-style coaching background where he ran his offenses out of a traditional I-formation. In recent years we’ve witnessed a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy across college football, as the spread offense has become en vogue. By implementing the pistol formation at Nevada Ault has devised a hybrid scheme that can run out of one simple formation.

Usually lined up with three WR’s and operating out of the shotgun, the spread element is already apparent. Nevada’s bread and butter play the last few seasons has been the “veer” play which can be seen here. This is a zone-read play where Nevada will overload blockers to one side, leaving the front-side DE completely naked. At this point, the QB can do two things. Either hand the ball off to the RB where his blockers should have a numbers advantange, or if he sees the DE crash down on the RB he can pull the ball out and run it himself (which is what Kaepernick does in the video above). Kaepernick was a one-of-a-kind QB with rare mobility and it remains a major question as to just how effective this play can be with Tyler Lantrip running the show. Come Saturday if Lantrip doesn’t hand the ball off on this play look for him to attempt quick bubble or hitch screens instead of pulling it down and running, as it plays to his strengths as a passer.

One reason Ault loves the pistol is that he doesn’t have to abandon his roots. Lining the RB directly behind the QB doesn’t tip the plays direction, and it also allows the QB to hand off to the RB in a traditional power running style. Here is a simple off tackle run that isn’t possible to run out of a normal shotgun spread. If this play has any success, look for Ault to use straight play-action out of it and take some shots deep.

Oregon’s Blur Offense
The name “blur” offense is just a nickname that speaks to the speed with which Oregon runs their plays. But what kind of an offense are they running? Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme actually bears some similarities to the one Chris Ault has installed for the Wolfpack.

The first and most striking similarity is that in Oregon’s spread offense Darron Thomas typically lines up at “pistol” formation depth of 4-5 yards behind center. The big difference is that LaMichael James always offset to the either side of Thomas instead of behind him. This allows Oregon to present a number of different looks and wrinkles with what is basically the same play. The staple of Oregon’s offense is the zone-read play which is broken down wonderfully by ESPN’s Todd McShay here. As you can see in the video, Oregon can run a straight zone-read play, a veer option like Nevada runs, and also will bring a motion man into the backfield to create a triple-option possibility.

Chris Ault managed to incorporate an “old-school” I-formation style attack into a new formation, and Chip Kelly has done the same. It wasn’t implemented at all against LSU so it remains to be seen how much the Ducks will use it this year, but in the championship game last year Chip Kelly brought back the “Wishbone” formation most commonly associated with power running teams. The Ducks new look shotgun wishbone is used primarily to create confusion and misdirection, but during the Auburn game it didn’t appear that Darron Thomas and co. were that comfortable with it themselves.

Because Oregon gets their plays off so fast, their playbook is smaller than a typical college teams. Their passing game rarely uses straight drop backs, and is reliant on play action and fakes for success. When they fall behind against a team like LSU, they’re taken out of their element. Three step drop and throw isn’t Darron Thomas’ game.

So really when you break it down, both offenses are a creative mash-up of existing schemes put to use in ways that college football hasn’t seen before. Both coaches have made their systems wildly effective and while there are variations and copycats out there, these two offenses are unique. Saturday might not be the most intriguing matchup on paper, (Oregon is a 26 point favorite) but it’ll be a treat to watch two of college football’s offensive masterminds take their best shots at each other all day.

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