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By Mike Kuchar, X&O Labs Senior Research Manager

By Mike Kuchar

Senior Research Manager

X&O Labs

After culminating our special report on the Pistol formation - which cashed in at 30,000 words and 35 videos, it was no surprise to us that of all the coaches surveyed, 35.1 percent said that the zone read scheme was the number one most productive run concept they utilized this season.  It trumped any gap scheme, man scheme or zone scheme.  Among many other examples, the main reasoning consisted of the ability of the Pistol back to get downhill immediately because of his positioning (Diagram 1) and the formation doesn’t reveal anything to the defense in regards to the direction of the play.


Editor’s Note: You can discover more about X&O Labs’ historic Pistol Formation Study by clicking here. This special report includes 6 case studies, over 35 videos, and 13 downloads. Click here now to get the full-length report.

But before you get into installing or even tweaking your read zone game from your Pistol formations, there are a few things you need to consider.  Nevada has been running the read zone game from the Pistol since 2005, which means hundreds of coaches have had close to a decade to study and tweak the concept to perfection which is why XandOLabs decided to present to you what we felt were the three most productive innovations of the zone read game from Pistol formations.   It’s only part of the full-length special report on the Pistol formation which has been made available to our Insider members. 

Deviation 1- Scraping the “ride and decide” fundamental for a “Snatch” Technique

What was the difference between how Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick ran the read option game from the Pistol this season?   According to Jim Mastro, Kaepernick’s former coach at Nevada (now Washington State’s backfield coach), it’s all in how Kaepernick was trained to make the exchange.   “The Redskins have RG3 push the ball back to the back and step back forward to the line of scrimmage,”  Mastro told us.  “The 49ers run it like we did.  He (Kaepernick) drops and cocks and the ball is held right there.  He doesn’t push the ball back.  He doesn’t push himself toward the line of scrimmage.  He lets the back run through.”

In order to do this, Mastro teaches his QBs what he calls a “snatch” technique, which is the opposite of the traditional ride and decide fundamental that some coaches train their QB’s in the mesh.  “ The QB does not want to push the ball back to the running back.   That ball is just held out there at that angle.  By the time the running back gets to the QB that snatch, he knows if the QB is either pulling it or giving it.  That’s why we had hardly had any fumbles.  When it’s a ride and decide, he’s deciding pull it, keep it and there is hesitation.  When it’s the snatch technique, by the time the running back gets there the QB knows either I’m pulling the ball or giving the ball. “

Just get a glimpse below on how Mastro teaches the “Snatch” technique to his QB’s.  This comes straight from his drill tape he shows his players.

Deviation 2- Altering a tighter path for the Pistol back

According to our studies, in most read zone schemes, coaches have opted for front side A or B gap path.  However, in the Pistol formation, we’re finding that coaches are changing their backs aiming point to the backside A gap (Diagram 2).  We’ve found there to be various reasons for this- which are all detailed in our full length report- but one of the better ones came from Reid Evans, the offensive coordinator at Central College (IA) who uses what he calls a “negative A gap path” in his read zone schemes.  “.  “We toyed with it being in the front side A gap,” said Evans.  “But it turns out the back hits a lot quicker if he’s in the back side A gap.  His read is the first down lineman past the Center back side.”


5 of Chris Ault’s Assistant Coaches Break Their Silence About Nevada’s Pistol Offense. Click Here.

Cameron Norcross, the former offensive line coach at Nevada- and now handling the same responsibility at Fresno State University- believes in the same concept.  “Our backs were taught first step was outside foot of Center and the next step was inside foot of guard,” said Norcross.  “They would chase the backside hip of Center to try and push themselves to the front side.   Chris Klenakis, the offensive line coach at Iowa State and the former offensive coordinator at Nevada under Chris Ault, talks about making sure the QB steps off the midline clearing the A gap for the back.  “We didn’t want the running back to push the QB to the DE,” said Klenakis.  “The QB opens opposite the call and clears the A gap for the running back.  The key is the running back.  He must be in the A gap, he must be coached harder than QB.  The TB owns the mid line; the QB must clear from him. The Gap concepts marry slice concepts because they open up the same way.  The QB opens opposite the call. “

Deviation 3- Applying Double Load or “Cruiser” concepts from various formations

Sure, it was no secret that Nevada was finding ways to “borrow” blockers from across the formation to account for defenders in their zone read game.  In our full-length report, Norcross talked to us about how the Wolfpack would use its “Samari” or unbalanced formation out of 13 personnel to run the read zone game weak by borrowing blockers from across the formation.  They would motion a Wing or Tight End from the other side of the formation to account for the QB player (Diagram 3).  It married up with the Slice or inside zone concept (which is explained earlier in the report).   “Really we were just borrowing blockers at the point of attack,” Norcross told us.  “We were running one back plays and two back plays out of a one back set.  You had to defend it like a two-back system.   People thought we had a magic potion, but we were running zone read like everyone else in the country but from a different formation.”

Watch Over 35 Game Films of the Pistol Formation. Plus, Get 13 PowerPoint Downloads on the Pistol. Click Here.





Now, we’ve found many coaches are using the Slip or “Cruiser” concept from various formations including the 30 personnel Diamond formation (Diagram 4) and perhaps the more popular Pro formation out of 21 personnel (Diagram 5).    The 49ers mastered this concept this season, particularly during their divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, which can be seen here:


While we actually polled coaches on the techniques they teach their “cruiser” player (which responses can be viewed in the full-length report) we did want to share what Norcross told us.  “We would tell him to aim for outside shoulder of the defensive end (opposite of slice which is the inside shoulder).  “When we got to the second level it doesn’t have to be a kill shot.  Our QB will make your right.  We just wanted to fit him up and basketball screen him initially.  Once he chooses a direction now we can shuffle our feet and run him that way.  The QB can press and cut off of us. The one thing we didn’t want to do is turn out on him and have him squeeze us down into the hole.” 

To see various Cruiser concepts cut-ups and the various formations coaches use them, click on the link below:



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