2021 Could Be Year Of The Pistol For Pittsburgh’s Offense

I promise this isn’t an I-told-you-so. But I’ve been calling for it for years. 2021 might be the year my wish gets granted. It’s looking like the Pittsburgh Steelers might finally run a pistol offense.

For whatever reason, it’s something they’ve almost never done over the last decade. Even as the offense got under center less, shotgun more, and its playaction usage was in the league’s basement and ineffective the few times it was called. The only time the Steelers would dust off the pistol page of the playbook were extreme situations. Like Baltimore in 2010 when Roethlisberger gutted out playing on a broken foot that would barely allow him to move. Pistol was used as an under-center substitute to minimize his total lack of mobility.

As Dave Bryan likes to say, however comma. Pistol usage began to change last season. In Matt Canada’s first season with the team, the pistol rate rose to 3.6%. 35 of 973 snaps with Ben Roethlisberger. That’s far from a huge number but it appeared intentional. Not the “in case of emergency” glass the team would break in past seasons.

Unlike almost every other aspect of the run game, it was successful. On run plays out of pistol, Steelers’ backs carried the ball 19 times for 98 yards, a healthy average of 5.2 yards per carry with a success rate of 52.6%. Here’s how pistol runs stack up to the Steelers’ run game overall by their backs.

*The non-pistol success rate is cumulative and includes everything, I’m unable to separate the data at this time but assume if you could take pistol runs out, that percentage would fall about a point.

Steelers’ Run Game Att/Yards YPC Success Rate
Non-Pistol 302/1130 3.7 47.3%*
Pistol 19/98 5.2 52.6%


Understanding it’s a small sample size but it’s also about the most promising piece of run game data for the entire seasons. Anything that looks like it could improve the ground attack has to be explored.

That quicker, downhill action in the run game might be one reason why the run game was more successful out of pistol. Especially compared to shotgun with the back aligned sidecar, it’s harder for the runner to build up momentum before reaching the line of scrimmage.

Philosophically, Canada wants to run his offense under center. But good coaches combine their ideals with the strengths of his personnel. Blindly asking players to run “your offense” is putting a square peg in a round hole. Not going to work.

So what’s the compromise between Canada’s under-center preference with Roethlisberger’s shotgun-happy style? Pistol. In that coaching clinic we recently explored, one of Canada’s slides noted any run under center can also be called from pistol.

It’s also the best chance to improve playaction. Because of that downhill action where the QB’s back is turned and defenders lose sight of the football. The benefit for Roethlisberger, who definitely doesn’t love using playaction, is that he can better scan the field pre-snap from his pistol alignment as opposed to being crouched under center. And he can more quickly get his head turned around to read the defense on his playfake.

Here’s a great example of pistol’s potency. Just a two yard gain Week 2 against Denver but this play has multiple components to it. Jet return motion by Chase Claypool to get the defense moving and potentially out of position pre-snap.

Inside zone run to James Conner with Roethlisberger faking the boot to the left. But if the Steelers wanted to actually boot it, Roethlisberger has an easy completion in the left flat to Claypool with blockers out in front.


Check out how many defenders that boot and motion occupies. Three of them. Lightens up the box for the run game, too.

The run failed because no one worked to the linebacker, a reminder personnel still trumps everything, but if the front five blocks this thing up, it’s going to result in a nice run. All this flexibility pistol will provide.

It’s the best way to mesh Roethlisberger’s strengths with Canada’s fingerprints on the offense. Everyone wins. Quarterback doesn’t hate how he’s used. Canada gets to run what he thinks works. And the run game will hopefully improve.

I’m not sure exactly how much pistol we’ll see in 2021. It won’t be at a Baltimore Ravens level. Lamar Jackson and OC Greg Roman really use it as a base for their offense. But I have a strong feeling we’ll see a lot of it in Pittsburgh. Maybe floating around the 20% mark. Pistol has been a long time coming and hopefully under Canada, it will have officially arrived.

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