Breaking It Down: The "Wild Cat" Formation


It 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.

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.

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.