Pioneers: Explaining The Pistol, The Air Raid and The Redskins

There's been a lot of talk about the offense this year but not a lot of clarity on what exactly the philosophy is. It has been described as a "pro-style spread option" but that over-simplifies and understates the innovation built into the current scheme.

I'll probably be the first person to tell you that the Redskins are running the Air-Raid offense out of the Pistol in order to use the run game to set up favorable match-ups on the outside.



To really get the best grasp of the fundamentals on how this works, one needs to look no further than Morgantown, West Virginia on Saturdays.

The "Air Raid" concept-- popularized by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach in the late-‘90's-- was designed as a hybrid Run and Shoot/West Coast offense with the chief concept being to create "space" by splitting linemen wider and WR's further in their routes. West Virginia Head Coach Dana Holgorsen was a quarterback's coach at Valdosta State in the early ‘90's under both Mumme and Leach before following Leach to be at Texas Tech until 2007. Holgorsen evolved the "traditional Air Raid" by not "throwing just to throw" in his words and running the ball more traditionally.

Air Raid teams like to attack the perimeter with short passing routes in lieu of a traditional rushing attack. Key plays of the Air Raid like the Mesh combo route, triangle concepts, as well as basic crossing patters were popularized by (interestingly enough) Mike Shanahan.

Holgorsen's offense runs the football more than stereotypical Air Raid teams but he also runs it out of different formations than the traditional four and five-receiver sets. Starting with his version of the pistol at Oklahoma State, what he has the Mountaineers do different is put two and three backs in the backfield at any time. This also allows the offense to get a third receiver/runner/blocker inside the box which brings more defensive players into the box, forcing one-on-one situations for outside receivers - which is devastating on play-action.

Chris Brown at Grantland explains this is difference a little better and how it differs from the traditional spread-style attack.

"The biggest change Holgorsen made to the Air Raid playbook has been to eschew the shallow crosses (he still uses them sometimes, but mostly as adjustments) in favor of routes that push downfield. Several Air Raid disciples tweaked the offense with more shallow routes - that is, by being more spread. Holgorsen went the other way. He brought backs into the backfield, added play-action fakes, and made his pass patterns all look the same. And now the Air Raid is even deadlier."

Hmm, any of that sound familiar to you?

"...chew on this: In the Orange Bowl, where Holgorsen's West Virginia squad bombarded Clemson for 70 points with a variety of interesting tactics, and where his quarterback racked up over 400 yards passing and six touchdown passes, how many true, Air Raid-style dropback passes did they throw? And be careful, when you make your evaluation, because you must study the offensive line on each play. On many of those downfield passes, the linemen did not pass block at all, but instead faked a screen or a run-play for play-action, or some other diversion. Holgorsen was not comfortable with his offensive line's play all year, so he increasingly found ways to throw the ball and get players on the perimeter and in space, while barely pass blocking at all. Study the game for yourself Video 1 / Video 2"

We are watching this same scenario play out in Washington; just with the best athlete to possibly ever play the position...and with the added wrinkle of the option.


On run plays, the Redskins offense basically uses two fullbacks as pulling guards out of the diamond pistol so linemen don't have to move as much, can block the guy in front of them and can get downfield. RG3 almost acts as a blocker, covering the backside of the play with a bubble pass or his ability to run, so you're able to block down with your line, giving them even more leverage.


On pass plays (or option play for this picture), because you have nine guys in the box (or in this case, only 7), the defense has to play on-on-one on the outside or play without a deep safety (in this picture they have either chosen to go cover 3 or cover 1 with the safety on the left side of the play watching Moss in the backfield and in run support) .

This isn't unique to football, obviously, but add in fact that the defense has to account for the speed and arm of RG3--now couple this with the threat of the option. Because the line blocks down and is evenly matched man for man(all 5 linemen block the 5 defenders on the left side of the field) the defensive end left unblocked has to play disciplined and every player on the right side of the defense has to make a play in the open field (trying to create mismatches in space): will he give it? Keep it? Throw it? Pitch it? On this play he shoveled inside to Moss but had the option to pitch outside to Banks.


All four options have to be in the mind of the defense and the offensive line blocking rarely provides any keys because almost all the plays are blocked the same. On play-action the receivers run a simple double post play, which RG3 has been deadly on all season.

"The reason this offense is so difficult to defend is because of the variation,"'s Daniel Jeremiah said earlier this week. "Linebackers are used to simply getting a run/pass read and reacting accordingly. That isn't the case against RG3 and this offense. There are run/pass/option and zone read plays that effectively paralyze linebackers. There is so much action to worry about on the front side that the linebackers don't see the wide receiver crossing from the backside. Griffin basically functions as Mr. Freeze!"

RG3 leads the league in play-action dropbacks this season with 40.7%. His average target length with play-action is over 11 yards downfield -his average is 6 yards. 10 plays of over 30 yards have come off of play-action compared to just 2 without it and 9 of his 17 passing touchdowns have come from the play-action pass.

Why the pistol though?

The Redskins have gone heavily to the pistol offense following their Week 10 bye. In their first nine games only 25.7% of their plays came out of the pistol. In just the last three games 45.5% of their plays have come from the pistol. They have a passing touchdown in each of their last three games from pistol sets.

The Pistol gives you the advantage of the I formation for running with the advantage of space to make the zone/option read, see the defense and shorten your drop. Putting the quarterback just a few yards behind center and the back behind him gives you a better angle to attack the line of scrimmage than running sideways as with traditional under center I-formations. The ability of RG3 to run the option and play-action with just those few yards of space gives him an extra second of protection without the disadvantages of full shotgun where linemen can see all the action in the backfield. The depth of the back gives him the ability to take the hand off going downhill without the quarterback "sidecar" where he just gets the hand off standing still.

How Long Will It Work?

Ask Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Both the Patriots and Packers run similar concepts in their offense; they just have the luxury of MVP quarterbacks so they throw the ball more. The Patriots like to use two-tight end sets and tight flanker sets to force a defensive front to respect the power run game and stack as many defenders as possible inside the box. It also help in pass block and again, to create favorable coverage match-ups on the outside.

For pass protection and power run blocking:


For setting up the mismatch on the outside:


Similarly, Green Bay will line up with tight ends as flankers and try to draw defenders inside to set up passing lanes and one-on-one situations--then run draws to keep defenses honest.


Watch below how the defense HAS to respect the run game up the middle (albeit they are on the goal line), but the fact that the blocking schemes look exactly the same in pass and run out of this formation forces the defensive front to react and makes the match-ups on the outside harder to defend.


Let's get this straight--the Redskins are still running the Mike Shanahan west-coast, zone-blocking offense. The innovation is adding option concepts and unorthodox formations to take advantage of RG3's unprecedented ability to be a runner and a passer (and carry out an incredible play-fake) and help the Redskins's mediocre offensive line (and receivers for that matter). The Redskins aren't running a gimmick offense- defenses just can't keep up with the speed and deception of the scheme.

Don't kill the homer.

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