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Breaking It Down: The "Wild Cat" Formation

Wild Cat formation - Bitchin DaveIt is the brainchild of Miami Dolphins quarterback coach David Lee.  A formation that he designed while coaching at the University of Arkansas last season.  It’s called the “Wild Cat” formation and it gave the New England Patriots DC fits…and honestly, as a former defensive co-ordinator myself, it’s giving me fits as well.

 

On the dark quiet flight from Arizona to Miami following last weeks loss to the Cardinals, Phins head coach Tony Sparano summoned the QB coach to the front of the plane.  He simply said “we have to do something”.  The two began working on a strategy that had been first implemented during training camp but later shelved after RB Ronnie Brown hurt his thumb.

The Dolphins HC spent about 100 hours at the training facility and about 12 hours total sleeping…likely in his office.  On Wednesday, the Dolphins had one of their most productive practices of the year and one of it’s more grueling.  At one point Phins RB Ricky Williams said that he was about ready to “Phone it in” or something close to that.  Still, hearing that it wore out Ricky was a telling sign of the physicality of it all.

Tony Sparano said the formation is here to stay, claiming that while opposing defenses may have enough time to figure it out and plan against it, that he has enough variations of what he can do with it, to keep it fresh.

“We just scratched the surface of what we were trying to do,” Sparano said Monday, a day after the Dolphins routed the New England Patriots 38-13. “This is not something that just came up and we scribbled on the board a couple days ago.”

That could be trouble for other teams but definitely a positive for the fans and the players, who coincidentally loved the practice this week as it loosened them up and left their own defense asking “what the hell was that”.

This formation has me scratching my head.  So far as I can tell, this is my breakdown of the formations and why the play is so brutally difficult to simply “cover”.  The pictures are courtesy of Bitchin Dave Kennedy.

 

Wild Cat Formation - Bitchin Dave

 

Notice the lineup of players.  Chad Pennington is spread wide on the left side while Anthony Fasano is on the end.  However, Fasano is the left tackle on this play as rookie Jake Long is lined up outside of Vernon Carey on the right side.  The line runs, Long, Carey, Ndukwe, Satele at center, Smiley, Fasano with no TE on the left.  Ricky Williams, shown in motion leaves the slot receiver spot.  Hagan covers the line on the opposite side while TE David Martin lines up off set behind the two tackle formation on the right as well.  

On the defensive side of the ball, the two middle LB’s are stationary while the front 4 down-lineman have shifted off center with the DE lining up outside of Jake Long.  A Corner-back is lined up one one one with Pennington.  From this formation, the Dolphins have several options.  An underneath hand off to Williams, a pass to Fasano or David Martin, Hagan, or even Pennington, or as the Patriots found out a run by Ronnie Brown…4 times.


Wild Cat formation - Bitchin Dave

 

In the second picture we see the offensive movement of where the players ran their assignments.  Ronnie took the ball and ran up behind Long and Carey. I believe that David Martin ran to the outside in front of Ricky Williams on the lead, with Justin Smiley pulling from the left side to run interference for Brown.   Hagan ran up-field to block,  Pennington ran up field to block holding the corner from making a quick decision and gaining the angle route to take out Brown down-field.  Ricky Williams would lay a block on Mike Vrabel down-field as well after running his wheel to the outside as a decoy.  Williams would pull the corner and safety that are out in front of Hagan to the outside with him, leaving a gaping hole off the line for Brown.

Notice the play of Anthony Fasano.  He runs a simple out block on the DE.  With the flow of the play running from left to right, Fasano would later in the game peel off that block to catch the TD pass thrown by Ronnie Brown.  Chad Pennington on that play would run a curl route towards the middle of the field taking away the corner while the safety cheated to cover Brown and Williams.  Brown turned back to the left and Fasano was able to find a soft uncovered zone down-field.

Defending the play is no easy task.  The only real defensive strategy is to lineup up in a man to man accountability zone that pits each player against one from the offense.  For example, a safety on Fasano, corners on both Pennington and Hagan, a LB shadowing Williams, DE containment of Ronnie Brown, safety help on David Martin.  The problem is that you also face leaving a man on man situation for the play itself.  Meaning you could lose that coverage in traffic at the line of scrimmage.  Hold back and you get burned for an 8-10 yard gain or worse.  

From this formation, Ronnie Brown does not have a simple 3 options.  He has 7.  He can run the ball left or right either behind the pulling guard Smiley, hand off underneath to Williams, throw the ball to Hagan, Martin, Pennington, Fasano, or run it up the gut.  Here is the problem though for the defense.  The Dolphins could run Brown to the left behind Fasano and pull Smiley to the left as well.  Pennington could streak down-field taking the corner far enough away to allow Brown to turn the corner.  In the photo above, Fasano locks down the DE who’s first step will be towards the center.  If Smiley pulls left and Brown follows, there is open field as most of the defense will shift right where the unbalanced line is and the motion from Williams.

The other option for Brown is to follow Williams as well.  While the majority of the defense would shift as well, Hagan would be the likely uncovered option as he could set up behind the two moving LB’s who will try and stretch the play to the side line.  With Williams turning up field and Martin turning up field, the safeties are out of the play as well.  A 5 yard toss could be a 20 yard gain.

Yet another option is giving the ball to Ricky Williams who is on his motion from left to right.  While the chances of the play being successful on the outside are slim with Williams as the defenses natural shift will be in that direction, Williams can throw the ball as well.  As the safeties peel off the blocks of Hagan and Martin, they move up to Williams leaving one if not both up-field.

The Dolphins can use this formation simply out of the huddle or a simple shift heading to the line.  They can also use this as an exclusive formation where Pennington heads to the sidelines and, let’s say, Ted Ginn replaces him on the outside.  Ginns speed would pose another threat and throw a new twist into the defensive game-plan.  

This is the problem that many defensive coordinators are going to have face.  While they can plan for it during the weeks practice, they will not initially be able to incorporate a defensive front that will shut it down without guessing and getting it right.  If they pull the safeties up and go to a more man on man scheme, the Dolphins have other options in the formation to get behind the coverage or dump off the ball on a short hook and go.  While I am light years away from being an NFL coach at any level, it is safe to say that defensive coaches facing the Dolphins in future weeks will have a little bit more to worry about and game planning just got a lot harder.

Topics: Anthony Fasano, David Lee, David Martin, Derek Hagan, Jake Long, Justin Smiley, Miami Dolphins, Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, Tony Sparano, Wild Cat Formation, WildCat

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  • http://www.sportech.info JD

    This was an unbelievable read thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  • Pingback: The Wildcat is Here to Stay | SporTech Matter

  • http://phinphanatic.com Brian Miller

    Glad you liked it all, just wish I could figure it out…LOL…of course no I want it as confusing as possible for everyone…LOL

  • RickyNeverInhaled

    since it’s our play  i wonder if we have a way of stopping it if someone tries it on us. i think it’s only a matter of time before other teams use it. we just started a trend. other teams will say, if you can’t beat them, join them.

  • Deof Movestofca

    1) If Fasano was the tackle, wouldn’t he have been ineligible to catch the TD (unless the Dolphins alerted the referees of his eligibility)?  Or did they?
    2) How much of a catching threat is Pennington and, considering his history of injuries, how much of a risk it lining him up at WR?  And, even more surprisingly, why is any CB giving him a 10-yard cushion?
    3) With Williams’ motion and Smiley pulling, why doesn’t this leave the weak side susceptible to blitzes, seeing as only Fasano and Satele are the only blockers on that side?
    4) How long will you think it will be before wildcat/wildhog earns an entry into Wikipedia? :-P

  • http://phinphanatic.com Brian Miller

    First:  Fasano as a tackle was more theoretical in terms of the unbalanced line…Center, guard, fasano.  So no he was the TE.

    2:  Pennington doesn’t have to run 90 yards up field, but if you need 4 yards for a first or 8 yards for field goal range…quick hit and out of bounds.  It’s an option.  The Cushion they gave him really makes me laugh.
    3:  Natural defensive shift.  You have a strong right which will shift the line to that side.  If you blitz from the left, what are you blitzing for?  If it’s a pass back to the left you just left Fasano open, if you pull Smiley to the left to follow Fasano and Brown runs left behind them, the blitzing defenders again are taken by Smiley and Fasano and no one behind them.  Look at what happened on the play, Fasano took the DE, Satele blocked out on the lineman vacated by Smiley, block down by Ndukwe, and Long and Carey blocked out on their end.  Simple Dline formation….DE, T, T, DE.  In the above image you see a 5 man front, one of them is a corner or a safety that came up to cover Williams.  2 lineman on the side of Fasano and Smiley, 3 on the other with 4 lineman blocking there.  You don’t have to block one of the tackles when the play is going the opposite way…because the defensive scheme calls for the DE to stay at home and guard against a reverse.
    4:  LMAO
  • RickyNeverInhaled

    even jason allen would look good in this formation

  • Deof Movestofca

    Another take on the Wild Cat:

    http://www.phins.com/chris/column_092308.html

    Just to make things interesting, he mentions the possibility of Ginn in the backfield, used as a tailback since OSU used a similar formation.

  • http://phinphanatic.com Brian Miller

    Thanks for sharing that….very good read Deof

  • Jeremy

    This formation is definitely not ”the brainchild of Miami Dolphins quarterback coach David Lee”, nor is it  ”a formation that David Lee designed while coaching at the University of Arkansas last season.”  In fact, the formation was developed by Arkansas OC Gus Malzahn for the ’06-’07 season- a  year before Lee even showed up on campus.  Lee bastardized the formation, which was recoined the “wildhog” after the less-than-pleasant departure of Malzahn, and aside from a stellar individual performance by Darren McFadden at LSU, he was decidedly less sucessful with it than was his predecessor.  http://nwanews.com/blogs/slophouse/2007/10/16/why-the-wildhog-is-a-bust/.

    Apart from the lead paragraph, PhinPhanatic’s breakdown of the current version is a good one; however, the effectiveness of this formation is ultimately dependent upon the play of Chad Pennington. Remember, folks, that Ronnie Brown is a running back, not a quarterback. As long as Pennington can play solid, mistake-free football, the “wildcat” will be fun to watch and difficult to consistently defend. If the passing game suffers and the ‘Phins employ the attack out of necessity, defenses will be quick to stack the box, and the formation will soon be yesterday’s news in Miami, leaving David Lee searching for his third job in as many years. 

  • http://phinphanatic.com Brian Miller

    Jeremy:  The formation was not designed by Lee but this particular hybrid of that formation was….not to get nitpicky or anything…LOL.  I completely agree with you on the use of the formation and it’s success depending on how well CP plays.  Last week against the Bills CP threw downfield finally which will do more to open up the WC formation, still the Phins or anyone else can not rely on that formation to consistently win games…it has to be used as an extra formation not the base and too much of it will only help defenses figure it out.

  • Matt Spence

    David Lee is getting all the credit for the Wildcat at Arkansas, but it was Gus Malzahn who brought it to Arkansas. Gus was OC at Arkansas and the Razorbacks were running it in McFadden’s sophomore year, a year before David Lee made it to Arkansas. Malzahn moved on to the University of Tulsa before McFadden’s junior year.

  • RD

    David Lee did not invent the “Wild Cat” Formation. Gus Malzhan the Offensive Coordinator at Tulsa did. It’s typical of David Lee he comes from the same slime that is Houston Nutt to take credit for something he didn’t create.

  • Zeke

    Malzahn didn’t invent squat.

    This is the single-wing, last run in the NFL in 1951.

    Lee, DEFINITELY, brought it back to the NFL: Malzahn is a poser, racking up yardage — but not impressive wins — at Tulsa: losing 3 of his last 5 games…

  • NoName

    If i was a definsive coridnator the only thing i could see doing is making it a complete man to man scheme on defence. Where literaly everybody on the defence is told to line up with, and guard completly. Defencive linemen would try to get as much of a push on the offencive line as possible, corners and safties would guard recievers, and runningbacks would be guarded by linebackers. Also i can see the league installing new rules to limit the power of this, if all teams use this football would become a guessing game… not fun to watch… or play… or coach. Well thats my input… thanks for reading…

  • NoName

    by the way… the wild cat formation was invented in a former indian school, carlsilie… this has been proven.

  • http://andycrombie.com Kulba Kahn

    The wild cat was invented by god!!!