Monday, November 2, 2009

So, you think you know the wildcat?

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Rex Ryan is not one to mince his words, so the Jets' tough-talking coach proudly admits he's made today's game against the Dolphins "personal."

Ryan is seeking revenge against the wildcat, which embarrassed him and his proud defense earlier this month in a 31-27 loss that was sealed with six seconds remaining on Ronnie Brown's 2-yard run out of the formation.

After the defeat, the Jets were stewing so much that linebacker Calvin Pace took offense to getting beat by what his team labels "a gimmick" offense.

But in reality, the wildcat isn't fueled by trickery. At its core, the run-oriented plays the Dolphins have used almost 10 times per game this season are successful because there's usually one more blocker close to the line of scrimmage than the opposition has defending.

On top of that, the play flows quickly because the triggerman is a running back receiving a direct snap.

"It's just a power formation up front that comes down to execution," said Brown, who usually serves as the wildcat's triggerman. "Everybody just has to beat their man for it to be successful."


The wildcat is homage to the old school single-wing offense, which was created by Glenn "Pop" Warner in the early 1900s and later became the inspiration for the modern-day "shotgun" or "spread" formation.

"It's a throwback," said legendary Dolphins coach Don Shula, who served as the triggerman for the single-wing offense run by his Harvey High School team back in era when players wore leather helmets. "What goes around comes around. There really isn't anything new in football."

The Dolphins started using the formation in Week 3 of the 2008 season because they needed a strategy that put Brown and Ricky Williams, the team's two Pro Bowl tailbacks, on the field at the same time.

"That's smart football," said offensive coordinator Dan Henning, "get your best players on the field."

Last year, the Dolphins ran an unbalanced line, shifting both tackles to one side, and usually kept the quarterback on the field. This year the wildcat has evolved to a conventionally balanced line that often includes two tight ends and fullback Lousaka Polite primarily serving as blockers.

Sometimes the quarterback is included, sometimes he's not, replaced by a receiver or running back.

The biggest benefit of the wildcat? It eats up each opponent's weekly preparation time because defending it requires hours of film study and practice time.

"When you think about Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and the ability of those two backs, defenses have to work hard to prepare for them," Shula said. "They have [the wildcat] and their regular offense. They've got a lot of different ways to attack a defense."

End around

Here's the biggest misconception about the wildcat.

Many think the actual wildcat member of the scheme is the tailback receiving the direct snap, which is usually Brown.

Actually, the player running the end around, crossing the triggerman at the time of the snap to create an element of misdirection, is the wildcat.

The intent of the end-around fake, which is occasionally handed off, is to keep the defense somewhat honest, stretching the edges of their coverage, which spaces out the field. Putting a man in motion also helps the offense identify if the defense is in zone or man coverage. Ryan said it's the timing of the end around that makes the play so challenging to stop.

"He is at full speed, so he a lot of times will outrun [the defense]. You may have a [defensive] end that's wide and all that, but he immediately breaks containment because he's moving full speed," Ryan said. "Then, when he gets into the secondary, you may have a one-on-one matchup, but it's not a good one for you because you've got a smaller player trying to tackle Ricky Williams coming full speed around the corner. It's not a pleasant sight."

Zone runs

It's hard to ignore a running play that averages 6 yards. That's why the Dolphins' wildcat caught fire around the NFL last season, and has remained hot. This season nearly a dozen teams run their version.

No matter how teams decide to defend it, wildcat runs -- big and small -- eat up time of possession, convert first downs, and score in the red zone.

"We've seen defenses do everything against it," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We have seen pressure, we have seen people making a conscience effort to set the edges of the defense, and we have seen people stack the box. We have seen people leaving a safety in the middle of the field, thinking that's the answer is to us not throwing the football. And we've seen even fronts, odd fronts, over-shifted fronts -- everything."

The Saints limited the scheme's effectiveness last Sunday, holding the Dolphins to 30 rushing yards on 13 wildcat plays by blitzing the cornerbacks in the second half. Expect others to try that approach, and the Dolphins to have a counterpunch for it.

Wild throw

Before every wildcat play, Brown is responsible for scanning the defense and making sure he executes the optimal play.

Sometimes, like on the opening series of the first Jets game, the proper read calls for Brown, a lefty, to throw the ball.

Throwing out of the wildcat is a way of keeping defenses honest. When the Dolphins keep the quarterback on the field, they have the option of executing a double pass, as long as Brown's throw to the quarterback is a lateral. The Dolphins have scored two touchdowns in the seven throws made out of the wildcat since 2008.

The team practices passing out of the wildcat each week, and there have been instances when Brown participates in throwing drills with the quarterbacks.

"I'm a running back, so I haven't thrown many passes. I just try to take advantage of opportunities," said Brown, who has completed 2 of 6 for 40 yards and a touchdown. "I try not to think about it. If I see a guy open, I try to get him the ball."

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