The Kaep Gun
(Photo courtesy of NinersNation)
Since the San Francisco 49ers handed the car keys to Colin Kaepernick they’ve run a lot more of their offense out of what’s known as the pistol formation. It’s essentially a modified shotgun formation with the quarterback standing about 2 yards closer to the line of scrimmage, allowing for a RB to line up directly behind the QB. The result is that the QB has all the advantages of being in the shotgun without limiting the options for the running game.
The pistol, or as I’m now calling it, The Kaep Gun because it almost seems like it was designed specifically for Colin Kaepernick, also makes it easy for offenses to run what’s known as the read option. You’ve probably heard something about it in between conversations about the fact that Jim and John Harbaugh are brothers and Ray Lewis‘ deer antlers. The read option allows the offense to get a look at the defense and then run the ball where they are weakest. It’s not quite that simple, and most teams can’t run it because it requires a QB that is mobile, agile, big enough to take some hits (and aware enough to avoid them), and a competent passer. Fortunately for the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick is all of those things.
The amount you’ll likely hear about the read option come Super Bowl Sunday is going to be totally disproportionate to the numbers of times the 49ers actually run the play. The truth is the 49ers probably ran the read option no more than 10 or 12 times out of the 51 plays they ran against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, which is roughly 1/3 of their total rushing plays. It’s not something that is likely to ever be the mainstay of an NFL offense because of the unique talent it takes to make it work and because of the risk to the QB, but when executed properly it is a devastating weapon against an overaggressive defense. The effect is similar to a reverse in that sense, but the risk of losing yardage is significantly less with the read option than it is with a reverse.
Here’s how it works. The QB receives the snap, turns to face one side of the defense, and holds the ball out in front of him while he looks at whoever is responsible for holding the edge of the defense (a defensive end in a 4-3 and an outside linebacker in a 3-4). As he does that the RB runs across the QB’s face, which is when the QB has to make the decision to either leave the ball out for the RB to grab, or pull it in and run it himself. The actions of the defender on the edge will dictate what the QB decides to do. If the defender is crashing down towards the middle to stop the run, the QB pulls the ball back and runs around the edge through the space vacated by that edge player. If that edge player stays wide to stop the QB running, the RB will get the ball.
The offensive linemen also react to what the defenders on the edge are doing, and it makes their jobs easier. In a typical running play offensive linemen are moving the defenders against their will, fighting force with force with the stronger man, the player with better leverage, ultimately winning. On a read option play it’s a different situation. Rather than going against the defender, an offensive lineman’s goal is to prevent the defender from correcting their initial mistake. That means taking the inside shoulder and sealing off an inside lane if the defender on the edge moves outside to take the QB, and taking the outside shoulder to seal the edge if the defender crashes down on the running back. Engaging a defender as he tries to change direction, when he has the least amount of leverage, gives the offensive lineman a decided advantage.
So what’s the answer for a defense? Well, the short answer is stop trying. The read option is like quicksand; the more you fight it the worse the situation becomes. Stanford beat Oregon last season, a team that relies heavily on the read option, by maintaining their gap assignments and containment responsibilities. Players on the edge weren’t trying to make a big play, just contain the offense and prevent one. Hold the edges. Trust the interior linemen and linebackers to make the play. Give up 2 yards so you don’t give up 20. In that game in Eugene last November, Stanford didn’t “stop” Oregon’s high powered offense. The Ducks gained 400 total yards with half of that total coming on the ground. What Stanford did accomplish was keeping the Ducks, for the most part, off the scoreboard. They limited the big plays and made Oregon string together long drives and beat them through the air.
It’s interesting to compare what Stanford did against Oregon to what Atlanta tried to do against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Mike Nolan, the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, watched Kaepernick run for an NFL QB record 180 yards against the Packers and vowed not to let Kaepernick beat him by getting around the edge of the defense and into space. It’s a great theory, right up until Kaepernick reads the edge defender and hands the ball to the RB who is able to gain 10 yards running through a wide open lane.
With a player like Kaepernick, a freakish athlete who is equally capable of beating a defense with his arm or his legs, there’s no way to completely stop the read option. All a defense can hope to do is contain it, get the 49ers into a 3rd and long situation, and hope for a stop. An offense which operations out of the shotgun gives its QB a greater ability to see the defense and see the play develop, but that advantage comes with a price because with the RB lined up next to the QB the only way to run the ball is with a draw play. The Kaep Gun, which is perfectly suited for Kaepernick’s abilities, gives the QB that same ability to read the defense in the passing game without taking the full compliment of running plays off the table.
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