How to beat the Wildcat

What would you do if Ronnie Brown lined up at QB? AP Photo/J. Pat Carter

When the Miami Dolphins have QB Chad Pennington, RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, TEs Anthony Fasano and David Martin and WR Ted Ginn Jr. in the huddle, the defense is generally thinking that the play is going to be a run. But what happens if Pennington lines up wide left, Williams lines up in the slot and Brown sets up in the shotgun? Get ready for the Wildcat.

When Brown lines up in the gun, the play is pre-determined. The Wildcat is different from running the option because Brown doesn't practice it enough to read defenses and determine whether he should run inside, hand off to Williams (who is motioning to the right with a full head of steam) or throw a pass. The margin for error is too big. The only option he has is to tuck the ball and run if his intended receiver isn't open when a pass is called.

Wildcat Formation

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Dolphins' Animated Plays
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Not only does the Wildcat formation use the element of surprise, it forces a defense to take time in practice to prepare for it. Coaches also must look at every player on their opponent's roster each week to find out if any of the backs or receivers played quarterback in college or high school so they can prepare for the halfback pass. Once they find that out, they need to determine if that player is right- or left-handed. This is something the Patriots failed to do. When Brown rolled to his left, they didn't expect him to pass because no one knew he was left-handed, and he completed the pass for a TD.

The one advantage the defense has versus the Wildcat is that there is a running back at quarterback, so the defense must bring pressure. However, there isn't much time to adjust when you see the Dolphins come out in this formation, so the simplest way to defend it is to have the middle linebacker audible to an automatic blitz. The linebackers will blitz inside, while the corners and safeties play man-to-man on the receivers and tight ends. The linebackers are better off blitzing and trying to fill the running lanes rather than trying to diagnose and react to the play. The run blocking angles are so good on this play because all of the offensive linemen have a down angle to block, so the first goal of the defense is to stop the dive up the middle and force the run to the outside where they have more time to react.

More on the Wildcat

Cris Carter heads to Miami for a football history lesson and learns how the "Wildcat" formation has turned around the Dolphins' season on "Sunday NFL Countdown." (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET)

If it's a pass, the tight ends are the biggest threats, because once they make a block they will release to get open. The safeties are responsible for the tight ends when they release because the linebackers are blitzing inside and the cornerbacks likely bit on the play fake. They must be aware of the tight end (Fasano) on the left blocking the right outside linebacker and then releasing into the flat, and the tight end on the right (Martin) blocking the left outside linebacker and releasing up the seam.

The Dolphins have run this formation 16 times in two weeks for an average of 10.4 yards per play. This has resulted in five touchdowns (four rushing, one passing) and two victories. Miami will keep using this formation until someone stops it.

Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.