Thoughts on Defending the Pistol Spread
Historical context and how modern defenses are answering a simple, but pesky question. How do you defend a 10 pers. Pistol Spread offense?
When I started my coaching career in 2009, the Spread was beginning to take hold of high school football. During the ’00s, the Air Raid concepts had crept into the lower levels of football to maximize the fact that most teams are a literal “island of misfit toys.” For many coaches, the Air Raid was a way to get more athletes on the field while not needing a lot of size on the roster.
Before the ’00s, most high schools ran some variation of ‘power football.’ Growing up in north Kansas City (Liberty, MO), we molded our program around Nebraska and its power option offense. Only one team, Blue Springs South, featured multiple WR sets as a base offense. As a CB, I enjoyed playing them the most.
To be successful in running power football, you need size and a RB. The issue for most high school teams and small colleges is size doesn’t exist roaming the halls. Hybrid schemes like the Air Raid allowed lesser athletes and “smaller” players to gain space to move and breathe.
Above all, the Air Raid took advantage of space and spread the defense out. There is a natural “lag” in defensive philosophy and scheme because, by nature, defense is reactionary. The offense sets the stage, and the defense has to mitigate the space created. I call this concept Spatial Darwinism—you either understand how to create or constrain space, or you die out like the dinosaurs. Adapt or die!
In the early ’00s, defenses were designed to stop the power run game or option football. Not a great philosophy, as offenses started using all 53 and a 1/3rd of the field. An epoch change in football was about to occur and wouldn’t conclude until 2018.
Related Content: Hybrids - The Making of a Modern Defense
They were spreading defenses out and leveraging the Air Raid’s athletic advantage. Quick throws, screens, and traditional passing concepts were amplified by space. Defenses didn’t know what hit them because conventional ways of playing personnel limited how a defense could react. Plus, overhangs tended to be box players that had limited coverage ability. Even ‘box’ or ‘down’ Safeties were glorified LBs.
By the time I arrived at Baylor in 2011, the evolution of the Spread was about to take another step. That year, Robert Griffin III (RG3) would win the Heisman behind an Art Briles-led 10 pers—uber-spread (and tempo) scheme. Defensively, we were a 4-2-5 that featured a “big” Nickel and Quarters coverage. Schematically, almost everything was predicated on the RB.
During the ’10s, RPOs were in their infancy. The simple Zone Read (modern Triple) was predicated entirely on where the RB was. Very few offenses had evolved to incorporate a “flop” read or an RPO opposite the RB at the time. Defenses figured if they set the 3 technique to the RB, they could gain a full cover down by the overhang, and the B-gap bubble would be opposite the RB. Thus eliminating much of the conflict.
At the rudimentary level, the overhang to the RB is out of the fit. He is not required to have a primary gap in the box and transitions to a coverage-first defender. The overhang away from the RB is in the fit. In a 4-2-5, the defender away from the RB would be responsible for the B-gap. For modern defenses, the Ni position and how they choose to defend the B-gaps are the fulcrums on which their structure is built.
ful·crum: the point on which a lever is supported and on which it pivots.
At the time, most defenses were running a 4-2-5 or even a hybrid 3-4 (‘Under’ defense… I call this Okie) with even spacing and single-gap fitting the box. In single-gap fits, every defender is responsible for a singular gap. Coverage-wise, this created issues. Most Quarters teams were running nine-man spacing to hold the single-gap mentality. Some defenses stuck with a single-high coverage base and played eight-man spacing to flood the box and, again, hold the singe-gap mentality.
Offenses quickly figured this out. The issue with single-high coverage against Zone Read and the Air Raid is twofold. One, the QB player in the fit, is located in the deep Post or middle of the field (MOF). At the time, the ‘Cheat’ technique wasn’t a concept defenses understood. My first time seeing it was the infamous 54-48 Georgia vs. Oklahoma Rose Bowl—the Bulldogs hadn’t quite nailed down the rules.
Two, passing was now a premium, and MEG Quarters (4-Lock) created the same issues as single-high coverage, man across the board, and no ‘post’ defender. Air Raid teams would hunt for the best match-up and then hammer that nail into oblivion. In Waco, Art Briles quickly pivoted from a 10 pers. base to an 11 pers. system because he could force the defense into a single-high alignment. At the time, most defenses would check to Cover 3 versus any TE set.
A powerful platform used on Microsoft® Visio & PowerPoint to allow football coaches to organize, format, and export Playbooks, Scout Cards, and Presentations efficiently.