Part 1 of "Dynamic Running" looked at 49ers' history of strategic running, while Part 2 focused on the contemporary version of the team's running game. Part 3 will take a gander at a specific formation, the "pistol," and how the Niners may or may not utilize it in the future. I say "may not," because I expect it to remain a feature, and not the whole, of the 49ers' multi-faceted offense. In fact the 49ers may well run pistol plays from other formations, and vice versa. They know opponents have invested off-season time in studying how they may muffle the pistol.
How might opposing defenses try to stifle the pistol, and how might the Niners counter those attempts? I have culled the following observations from watching several University of Nevada Wolfpack games over the past few seasons. I will attempt to project those observations to the pro level, and, specifically, to the Prospectors' personnel.
First, at the pro level, the pistol formation has proven viable so far because of a simple fact: for the last several decades, by and large, NFL squads have overwhelmingly defensed the quarterback as a passer only. Sure, an elusive scrambler like Fran Tarkenton or a legit runner like Michael Vick occasionally came along during the years, but nothing like the proliferation of dual-threat signal callers defensive coordinators now face. Pro teams have heretofore mostly avoided quarterback-as-runner offenses for good reason, which brings us to the first strategy for defying the pistol:
Hit the quarterback hard, and hit him often. In other words, make the QB pay for his presumption that he can absorb the same pounding as a running back. Unlike college, almost all NFL defenders possess plus speed and striking-power. If a defense doesn't send a quarterback to the bench, at least it can knock him out of his rhythm, both running and passing. Because of this, don't expect Colin Kaepernick to carry the ball sixty times a game. Note that, last year, the 49ers did not pull the pistol until they really needed it, particularly in the playoffs. As for Kaepernick's health, one may equally worry, as he continues to adjust to the pro game, that he might get hurt while in the pocket, or scrambling. Yes, he must learn to protect himself, but remember: Kaep has run the read option for several years already, and has practice knowing from which directions the tacklers may come. He now must continue to recalibrate those angles for the pro game.
The defense, and I mean every man jack of them, must consistently make tackles one-on-one. Traditionally, while stopping solely the run, NFL defenses had the advantage of numbers. To be sure, the quarterback could employ elaborate fakes, fancy footwork, and misdirection, but, ultimately, teams did not have to account for him as a consistent running threat. Obviously, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, both primarily old-school pocket passers, may now and then scramble for a first down, or even quarterback-sneak a touchdown, but likely we will not see them bolt for several big plays down the field per game. The new breed of QB, including Cam, RG3, and Kaep, engage in what we've called "dynamic running."
How hard can it be for an NFL player to tackle a quarterback? Hard enough when trying to tackle the three we just mentioned, but the defense's problems don't stop there. When the defense must assign a single player to consistently account for the quarterback as a runner, that defender cannot simultaneously be in ideal position to tackle another ball carrier. In other words, with the legitimate threat of a run, a quarterback becomes a de facto blocker, occupying the defender even if said QB never makes contact with the lone opponent. This leaves other defenders in one-on-one situations; thus the heightened importance of tackling. Remember the Atlanta playoff game.
The 49ers present unique problems to this "tackler's dilemma." First, because of their schemes, deception, and pre-snap movement, the Niner offense can influence defenders to be just slightly out of optimal tackling position, enough to make a difference. Second, the 49ers, during the last two seasons, have been adding shiftier players to their offense. Third, the 49ers, with their slobber-knocker offensive line and triple-threat tight ends, can simply pound the ball. Their offense combines subtlety and power.
Confound the read option by shifting defensive responsibilities. Say a defense wants to concentrate on stopping Kaepernick, and, further, to make him gun-shy by hitting him from sundry angles. Realistically, in most defenses, four players will have legitimate chances at tackling the quarterback on a read-option roll: outside linebacker, defensive end, safety, or cornerback. College coaches, during Kaep's Wolfpack career, would sometimes employ "scrape exchanges" whereby the DE and OLB traded off assignments, with Colin the designated target. Did they mess up his read? Occasionally. Did they stop him? Not so much. Again, Kaepernick, though he will enter just his third season in the NFL, has extensive experience running the read option. This ain't his first pistolio. He's comfortable with the offense.
In addition to Kaepernick's confidence, the 49ers will install several plays designed to foil those miscreants bent on search-and-destroy missions against their quarterback: wingback counters, quick pitches, semi-reverses, extra blockers pulled from multiple formations, timeouts at the last second (just kidding, but all too true). And we haven't even talked about the array of passes, screens, bubble screens, draws, and other passing-game niceties available from the pistol. Say a defense assigns a defensive back to take care of Kaep's run-threat. Please, please, do. Send a cornerback on a blitz off the edge? Good luck covering for him in the rest of your secondary. Cheat a safety up to tackle Kaep before he bursts up field? Even if your corners have mastered man-to-man coverage, how well will the other defenders account for the Niners' tight ends and running backs?
Patience. The pistol thrives on its versatility, on its utilization of the quarterback as a dual-threat, and on its ability to take advantage of minute adjustments/overplays in the defense. Get defenders even leaning the wrong way, and, watch out! a big play may ensue. Those teams in college that fared best against Mr. Kaepernick featured defensive players with the discipline to stick with their assignments. These squads simply cleaved to that old standby of sound defense: minimize the damage while you wait for the offense to make a mistake; even seemingly unstoppable offenses will sometimes stop themselves. Jeff Fisher of the Rams, rightly so, has earned a reputation for fielding patient, disciplined defenses, and for anticipating opponents' play calls. Even when his defenders swap or tweak individual assignments, they maintain their team responsibilities and account for possible running lanes and potential passing cavities.
Of course, the pistol presents the 49ers with another problem. Given the formation's NFL proliferation, they, too, must defend it. Luckily, they have a disciplined, good-tackling crew that has proven success in slowing other high-powered offenses, for instance last season's first half against the Patriots. Unfortunately, they have recently played only twelve to thirteen players, and those few, those happy few, that band of brothers need, you guessed it, a few more. Recall, for instance, last year's second half against the Patriots, and the 2012 season's subsequent defensive performance. Let's hope they expand their defensive rotation. After all, the Niners' offense cannot run the pistol, or any other formation, from the sidelines.
I doubt that the pistol, or any exclusively single formation, will define the 49ers' offense going forward. But other teams will have to prepare for it, and the creative gentlemen who scheme the Niners' plays, particularly as they consider last year's tendency reads by the Rams, will no doubt come up with ways to disguise, refit, and nudge pistol concepts toward new heights of derring-do.