Inside the Clemson Offense: Pistol Formation General Items

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 03: Tajh Boyd #10 of the Clemson Tigers hands off to Andre Ellington #23 during the ACC Championship game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Bank of America Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

There has been a bit of a buzz this offseason regarding wrinkles Chad Morris and the offensive staff will incorporate moving forward. A topic that is of particular interest amongst Tiger fans is the Pistol Formation. We will highlight how Clemson can take advantage of this formation and how we foresee its use in Clemson's attack. We took some time several years ago to briefly look at the Pistol, so these articles are a good place to start for those relatively unfamiliar with the formation and how others have used it in the past (Theory and Evolution and Basic Running Plays). I'll try to avoid overlap with those pieces and focus more on Clemson's use from a strategic point of view.

First and foremost, the Pistol is a formation, not an offense. Use of this formation will center around creating defensive mismatches and mitigating tendencies through formation. These concepts allow Morris to exploit opponent weaknesses and reduce pre-snap defensive anticipation associated with other offensive sets--particularly the gun formations used last season. Specifically, the Pistol formation combined with basic strategies is used to manipulate the defense (spread defenders across the field), controlling the first two defensive layers, and reading defensive coverage tendencies.

I'll also point out that the Pistol is not a specific formation but is dynamic and allows for multiple offensive looks. As always, concepts from this formation must be adapted to utilize the personnel and skill sets available to the offense and to defeat the opposition. Proper formation and player management will allow Clemson to be successful either running or throwing out of the Pistol.

As mentioned elsewhere, the Pistol is a morph between standard under center formations and gun formations. We'll begin with formation spacing generalizations. As shown below, the I-Formation features the QB under center, the fullback approximately 4.5 yards behind the line of scrimmage (LOS) and the tailback seven yards behind the LOS. Shotgun sets typically have the offensive backs five to seven yards behind the LOS. I'll note that these numbers are typicals and are not set in stone and can vary based on play selection, game situation, and preference.


The typical Pistol formation essentially takes the I-Formation, removes the fullback and places the Quarterback in his place. Like the gun, there is a direct snap to the QB. Gun formations offset the back(s) while the Pistol aligns the back(s) directly behind the QB. The QB is approximately 3.5 to 4.5 yards behind the LOS; the deep back seven yards off the LOS.


The Pistol provides many Gun and I-Formation advantages. Like shotgun sets, the direct snap allows the QB to get the snap quicker and reduces the dropback footwork. The Pistol brings the QB closer to the LOS which improves vision and ability to make a presnap read. Unlike the Gun, backs take handoffs much closer to the LOS running downhill. Pistol formation is dynamic and features all formations associated with traditional one-back sets. Further, it can adapt many offensive attacks both on the ground and through the air.

This formation sets up well for a mobile passer and should be good for Tajh Boyd. Boyd isn't necessarily a huge running threat but is mobile enough to reap formational benefits, particularly through some of the veer items installed last season. He'll also be closer to the LOS which impacts both presnap issues and timing due to getting snaps faster. Andre Ellington will benefit from this by improved vision approaching the mesh point and initial downhill movement. Best of all, items installed with the Morris offense are easily adaptable for use with this formation. The running game will still feature A gap to A gap carries from the deep backs and allows for orbit sweeps/reverses as well. Pistol should speed up timing routes--a scenario that could be dangerous with the receivers on the roster.

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