Miami Dolphins Offense: The Pistol and the Motion

Riding a five game winning streak, the Dolphins implementation of the Pistol Wing formation may provide a clue on their offensive success.

miami dolphins offense
Nov 28, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) directs his teammates against the Carolina Panthers during the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins offense has had a bit of a resurgence lately thanks in part to continuity in players at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line.

What’s been a facet for the offense of the Miami Dolphins success has been the implementation and use of the “Pistol Wing Formation”

What it is

The pistol formation, like the shotgun, is really an alignment between the quarterback and the running back. In the pistol formation, the quarterback lines up four or five yards behind the center, the running back lines up two or three yards behind the quarterback. In the shotgun formation , the quarterback lines up seven yards behind he center, and the running back lines up to the side of the quarterback.

The Pistol Formation comes with it’s advantages and disadvantages, lets take a brief look at them


  • The Pistols main advantage is its versatility that comes from it’s hybrid design. Having the quarterback three to four yards deep allows him to make downfield reads and separate himself from the pass rush by a few yards.
  • It also has the running back five yards from the LOS and directly behind the quarterback to build momentum before getting the ball.
  • The Pistol formation supports Read Options. It can be a fully functional pass play, keeping the running back to pass block. It can also serve as a run play with power blocking and pulling guards
  • The real nightmare is the RPO. It’s entirely dependent on the quarterback to watch the defense and decide which play will have the most success.
  • Can create advantages in the play-action game. The pistol alignment represents a run-first perception, it makes the play-action pass that much more effective.


  • It’s dependent on the quarterback to quickly decipher defenses and make smart decisions, it comes with a big learning curve. A wrong decision could prove disastrous.
  • Playing Man coverage takes away most of the passing game, leaving minute plays for offenses to employ
  • Offensive line blocking is dependent as the quarterback is closer to the LOS. OL blocking can make or break the offense

What it means

For any Offense which runs the Pistol, it means these things:

The best Pistol offenses are those that can implement aspects of a Spread Offense into their game plan, it requires a smart quarterback who can properly read defenses once the ball is snapped.

While the Pistol could be used just to run the ball, it’s at its best when each play is different than the last. As such, having a solid core of blockers, pass catchers and a good quarterback is necessary.

When running the ball out of the Pistol, teams run up the middle where there are a lot of defenders. Teams that are undersized along the offensive line aren’t built for this type of play.

The Miami Dolphins Offense

Over this current five game winning streak the Dolphins have primarily lined up in shotgun, which includes the pistol formation. Usually this formation includes the basic Pistol offense with a Wing look.

Other Pistol Formations |
A variation of the Pistol Formation

How it’s done

The Pistol usually has two to three players in the backfield, primarily as it is designed to be a run first offense.

However, with the wing formation, TE’s on the edges, force defenses to play at least three players deep.

While it may seem that the pistol is most effective on the dependence of the running game; paradoxically, it is dependent on the threat of a passing game.

The passing game is dependent on the quarterback moving the ball to and from the flow of attack. The best description may be the term of “sequence football”.

Basically, the offense runs in plays where it attacks different parts of the field once the ball is snapped. This does not mean that every play is called in order, it is mostly based on matchups and post snap reads.

Which is why you see plays that look and feel similar, but can attack different parts of the field. Similar to Sean McVay’s singleback look.

Backfield Motion

Passing Game

The main sequence the Miami Dolphins offense use is the backfield motion to create space and attack different facets of the field.

On the play above Wilson motions to the right side of the formation, this allows Tua to see the defense is in zone coverage.

Wilson runs the wheel route gaining depth into the defensive backfield. Waddle runs the curl, an intermediate route, attacking the soft zone in the middle. Meanwhile, Durham Smythe is jammed at the LOS running a short crossing route.

The biggest threat to the defense is Wilson gaining depth into the defensive backfield, which forces Giants defensive backs Xavier McKinney and Aaron Robinson to stay deep and prevent a big play.

In turn, this frees up the intermediate route Jaylen Waddle runs, he has enough space to catch the ball for a first down and keep the drive alive.

Running Game

The Dolphins also use the backfield motion concept to create space and attack different running lanes in the run game.

Using the motion while using the same type of blocking scheme. Usually Pistol offenses run with a power scheme along the offensive line. However, the Dolphins use a zone blocking scheme.

The sequence in how the run game can vary in playcalls but use the same blocking style. Run out wide, off tackle, and up the middle all use down blocks by most of the line with a pulling guard and blocking on the other side of the backfield.

This concept is used on the run above.

The counter play uses down blocks to build a wall of bodies away from the play and a pulling guard to kick out and head upfield to clear a running lane.

Albert Wilson motions and post snap so does the right side of the offensive line. The theory is that the flow of a play can take multiple blockers to the point of attack or be decoys while the running back is on the opposite end.

The execution on the play above illustrates how the theory is able to work. The blocking style is designed so when a defender reacts to blocks to stop a play, he will be placing himself in jeopardy for a companion play. Sounds familiar to the RPO. 

Multiple Threats

The Pistol offense is designed in complete backfield series, each of which presents multiple threats to the defense on each play.

Passing wise, the Dolphins run the Pistol Wing to put the perception that there are multiple deep receivers. Most of the time when it is ran, it is in a condensed look.

“When you condense the formation in general out of those RPO looks… it gives defenses more things to look at leading to conflict and hesitation on the eyes as there are a lot of motions, possible split zone action and a variety of different plays that can happen. For Tua he gets the options of the flat, the hook, the curl, the post, the handoff. There are so many different ways [Tua] can put the defense in conflict , when you condense that you increase the post snap reads”

Travis Wingfield

In the condensed Pistol Look, there can be many options, threats, Tua can look in his post snap reads.

For example, the stick flat RPO that is a staple in the offense. Based on the type of Coverage is shown once a play is motioned, the flat play to the tight end is an easy read against man coverage.

It has a balance of passing, which is predominantly play-action in nature. The RPO adds that extra conflict for defenders where they have to hesitate, they have to read and react. It puts defenders in a bind.

The Future

When you watch NFL teams run the Pistol offense, you see them tire out defenses in the running game. It’s discouraging when a team can just pound the rock for six yards a carry and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

The Dolphins, however, cannot run the ball well due to issues along the offensive line. Once these issues are fixed through the draft or free agency signings, the offense has the potential to become a possession team head coach Brian Flores has preached about.

The flip side for the Miami Dolphins offense is that it is labeled as a predominantly RPO offense that dink and dunks its way; although, defenses have not been able to fully halt it.

The threats the condensed Pistol Wing looks bring defenses are the route combinations designed on three levels of the field. Opposing defenses have tried to match up with the wide receivers on the outside to stop deeper routes from forming. Thus, being okay with Tua to throw to shorter and intermediate routes.

Defenses are pattern matching on the outside and allowing linebackers to stay in zone. By doing this, defensive backs are focusing on route distribution while linebackers are able to play with their eyes in the backfield. Leaving the middle of the field open for running backs and tight ends to roam.

Essentially, it is death by paper cuts.

Partner that with a better offensive line, preferably to run a power scheme, and a premier running back. The Miami Dolphins offense could do damage next year.

Follow Hussam Patel on Twitter

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Author: Hussam Patel

Head Contributor for Dolphins- Around the Block Twitter: HussamPatel

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