A Look At UCLA's Pistol Running Game

Bumped. GO BRUINS. -N

Everyone probably knows by now what the pistol formation is supposed to look like ...

... but I don't think we actually got to see how the offense should look like until last Saturday. I'd argue that we haven't really gone full "pistol" (or revolver) offense until this week. I don't know if anyone noticed, but we didn't even get into the pistol formation until the 2nd or 3rd drive of the KSU game and we opened up vs Stanford with Prince under center, throwing off the "spacing" concept, which is something that Coach Chow has used in the past. Against Houston, I believe we were in pistol for every snap, minus a QB sneak. More importantly, we were running the basic bread and butter running plays within the scheme which I'll break down below.

I don't know if it was Nevada's performance over Cal on Friday that gave the coaches the confidence to sell out to the pistol, but I'm thankful they did. I don't think that it is a scheme that you can dabble in, I think that it's one that you've got to rep over and over and that you will live and die by. If you pick one scheme, a series of plays that complement each other and work together, and master it, you will do well, but if you try to mix and match and try to do too much, I think you will struggle.

I don't have much on our passing game, since it has been pretty bad, but we looked good running the ball last week. Our run game is essentially the same as what Nevada does. Against Houston, we showed four base plays: 1) "Horn", 2) Inside Zone ("Slice"), 3) Outside Zone, and 4) Veer.


Nevada apparently calls it "Horn", maybe we call it something else. You can watch a video of Nevada running it here, and read more about it here. I'm not going to get into much detail, but the basic idea is that you can use some misdirection, angles and leverage with mobile, quick linemen instead of brute force. 


The top diagram is just plain, old-school base blocking - you just need each guy to beat the guy across from him. The bottom diagram is with "fold" blocking - it's reliant on quicker linemen that use leverage to push guys out of the way, not drive them back. The TE blocks down on the guy lined up over the tackle, while the tackle folds underneath this block and drives the SLB outside, hopefully opening up a hole between them. The NT has already lost leverage on the play going right at the snap, as the RG blocks down while the C folds underneath to block the MLB. The final two linemen wall off the backside, and will try to reach block the defenders first, and then just cut out their legs if they cannot get there in time.

In the backfield, the QB reverse pivots (opens up away from the play, to freeze the LBs - remember, the back is lined up in a neutral position and can go either way - this gives the C time to fold and reach the MLB) and hands the ball off to the back, who takes a vertical path to the line and then heads outside. Because he receives the ball deeper than normal, he can start to head inside and bend to the outside. Watch the Fresno State LBs in that video above; as they get caught inside with the backfield action. We opened up the Houston game with "Horn", and it was a consistent gainer throughout the game.

"Slice" - Inside Zone

Inside zone was a big part of the run game during the first half of last season, and you can read about it here. The wrinkle with the pistol is that the F-back is usually used to "slice" across the line of scrimmage backside and seal off the backside. Scroll down to "Basic Inside Zone" on this post for more info. Another difference is that the back receives the ball much quicker - he is only 3 yards behind the QB and has more time to find a crease and accelerate. Other than that, this is nothing new. The slicing action of the F-back and/or motioning WRs opens up possibilities for play action as well as other plays (see "Veer" below).

Outside Zone

This is also covered in the two zone running game posts linked above; again, being in a pistol formation gets the ball to the back much quicker.


I believe that the veer play is the single best reason to run the pistol. I've heard a couple things about this play from commentators and fans and I'd like to clear a few things up.

It's not the zone read

I've heard it called the zone read, but it is not the zone read. If you haven't watched any college football in the past 5 years, here's a pretty simple explanation of the zone read.

The difference between the zone read and the veer is that with the zone read, you leave a backside man unblocked and option him of so that he cannot make the tackle. With the veer, you leave a frontside man unblocked, and option him off so that he cannot make the tackle.

With the zone read, even if the end stays at home and the QB hands off, you still need everyone to correctly block zone. You've only eliminated a backside defender who may or may not make the play. With the veer, if you make the correct read, the frontside defender will be wrong every time, and you can take a dominant defender out of the equation without even blocking him while running straight at him.

It's not a fake

You'll see Kevin Prince pivot and hold the ball out for what seems like a long time, only to pull it and run outside. We scored our first TD of the season with this play and the TV cameraman even seemed to be fooled. But it's not a fake handoff/bootleg, it's a decision that the QB needs to make depending on what the defense does. When it works, it looks like the defense was fooled, because they went after the wrong player, but it should look like that every time if the QB makes the correct read. If he hands off, the defender should look stupid, standing there, playing the QB. The defense can't cover both the QB and the RB, and if it's run correctly, they should be in a position where they have one player to try to cover both options. You're not trying to deceive the defense, you're just taking what they do not defend.

It's not a gimmick

I guess this is up for debate, but I don't think that optioning off a defender is a gimmick at all - it's no different than a QB reading a flat defender in pass coverage, with a receiver high and a receiver low, and throwing to the open man. It's just the running game equivalent of a pass coverage read. In my opinion, play action relies more on deception and is more of a "gimmick" than the read option game.

So now that that's out of the way, here's what the veer play looks like from the pistol.


  • Again, it's not zone blocked - if it were, you'd see linemen trying to step left around their defenders, as the play would be going left. Everyone is just blocking "down" so that the line just "veers" down at the snap, as you have double teams on the NT and DE - just like "Horn", at the snap of the ball, most of the defense has already lost leverage on the play. Those are easy blocks by the OL - you don't need to blow anyone off the line, you are attacking defenders from the side and you start with the upper hand.
  • The SLB (or first man outside that cannot be "down" blocked) is not blocked - he's optioned off. As it stands, the playside DE is double-teamed and the NT is double-teamed - both should be driven off the ball, leaving a huge hole for the dive. The only way that the dive can fail is if the unblocked SLB squeezes down on the back.
  • The QB turns right and holds the ball out as he "meshes" with the RB - he will hand the ball off UNLESS the SLB squeezes down to take away the dive. He should pull the ball if and only if he sees the SLB squeeze down - handoff is the "safe" play, sort of like the checkdown pass, and the QB pulling it is like the deep pass. Better to get the ball to your running back headed downhill than to pull it and leave it in your QB's hands heading laterally. Worse case you lose 2 yards.
  • UCLA showed some variants with the F-back (who is lined up as a wing behind the TE) and some motion by the slot receiver. What they did was use the same look as the "slice" play, with the F-back pulling across the formation, and the linemen stepping to one side as if they were running inside zone. The LBs can't fly outside to where the ball is going, as they have to respect the inside zone as well as the possibility of playaction (once we get our passing game going). SLB is influenced outside by the receiver motion, which helps to loosen up the inside dive. Fly sweep to the motion WR or some kind of shovel pass to the F-back is also a possibility. I don't believe we used it vs Houston, but I'm guessing that it's a wrinkle still to come - players like Anthony Barr and Morrell Presley are too talented to use only for blocking.


Below is an image of UCLA running the play diagrammed above (except it's to the left). You can see the kind of movement the OL gets with those double teams - the DL has been pushed back to a 45 degree angle. #8 for Houston is unblocked and squeezes down, prompting Kevin Prince to pull the ball (#8 was originally lined up at the point of the "1st & 10" arrow and drifted inside about 3-4 yards - had he had stayed put and played the QB, Johnathan Franklin would have had a huge hole). Embree is the motion man (next to #7) and blocks the CB at the bottom of the screen, leading to a big gain.



Here is the simple guide of the basic run game if you are watching the game:


  • QB reverse pivots and you see linemen pulling = most likely "horn"
  • QB stands there and holds ball out, staring at a defender = most likely veer, and you should be able to tell where the ball is going based on what the unblocked man does
  • F-back pulls across the line and QB hands off frontside = most likely inside zone


I think that things will get better the longer we stay with this scheme. The thing that struck me was how much we looked like a full-on pistol team vs Houston. Again, I don't think that it does you much good to run a few plays here and there out of this system; you need to rep things that often get overlooked like a short center-QB shotgun exchange, which many snappers and QBs do not have experience with. Your backs also need to get used to receiving the ball very deep in the backfield - I think it's an advantage for the backs as they don't have to worry about the exchange and can focus on finding holes, but it takes time to adjust.

It'll be interesting to see how well we run the ball against Texas. This type of offense is made for teams that lack talent up front, such as a WAC team such as Nevada, as the blocking schemes aren't based on drive and power but instead use angles, leverage, and double teams. A scheme like this is meant to give teams with smaller and quicker linemen an advantage over larger and stronger defenders and it looks like we will be putting that to the test next week.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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