Understanding the Wildcat Formation and Why the Colts' Run-D Is a Concern

Justin JavanCorrespondent IOctober 7, 2009

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: Quarterback Chad Pennington #10 of the Miami Dolphins at the line of scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers during NFL Game at Qualcomm Stadium on September 27, 2009 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The Colts played the Dolphins three weeks ago, so why am I writing about the game now? For two reasons: 1) I have gotten a lot of fan requests to explain the Wildcats. 2) It relates to the article I just wrote about the Colts run defense.

The Wildcat formation and scheme are variations on the Single Wing formation developed by Pop Warner. This goes back to some of the beginnings of football.

Here is a link to pictures of the Single Wing formation and the Dolphins' Wildcat Sweep formation.

If you recall from my previous article, the players in the backfield all have a number: 1=QB (who back in those days was a blocker), 2=Fullback, 3=Tailback (what we now call the HB), 4=Wingback (which is just another running back).

One thing to note here is how extremely unbalanced the line is. The strong side has become even tougher to defend, because the TE has been moved over from the weak side. This really gives you a powerful running formation.

Just so it’s clear, an unbalanced formation is when you have more players to one side of the ball than the other.

I used the Dolphins' Wildcat Normal Sweep play for illustrative purposes because it was used very successfully against the Colts.

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The diagram also shows one of the formations that the Colts tried to use to stop it on defense, which was the 4-4 (four down linemen, four linebackers, three DBs).

First, I said that this formation and these plays are offshoots of the Single Wing. Let’s break the formation/play down:

1) Unbalanced line to the strong side.

2) The back behind the T.E. is similar to the Wingback from the Single Wing formation. Though on the diagram he is labeled as a running back, in Miami’s formation he is really an H-Back.

3) The first thing that almost all Wildcat plays have in common is that the split end runs a sweep pattern behind the line of scrimmage, in front of the QB.

4) The split end’s pattern shoots him through the “8” hole and up the field.

5) Here is where the play gets tricky, and why it is hard to defend. This is an option play.

The QB/RB has three options: 1) Hand it off to the split-end, and let him run the sweep. 2) Pretend to hand the ball off, and run the ball himself. 3) Turn the play into a play action pass, throwing it to the slot receiver or the flanker.

The description above is the basic idea of the Wildcat. Dan Henning has plenty of variations he runs to keep the defense guessing.

The reason it can be so effective is, in theory, you have to respect two different types of runs and a pass play.

The reality is that when the Colts played Miami, they only had to respect the run. In defending the Wildcat you’re much better off focusing on the run than worrying about the pass. The reason is that the majority of the plays are running plays.

A defense is much better taking the risk of giving up a passing play than being consistently beaten by the run.

As you saw in the game, the Dolphins didn’t even try to throw the ball. They didn’t need to with the way the Colts’ defense was playing.

Larry Coyer, for some reason, played a single high safety, switching between Cover-1 and Cover-3, most of the game. Basically, he was respecting the pass, and tied up two defenders doing so. He kept the FS deep, and one of the CBs on the wide receiver.

This gave the Dolphins a numerical advantage in the running game. Depending on how you look at things, you could say that the Dolphins had 11 vs. 9 in the running game, because two defensive players were tied up in pass protection.

Of course the Colts defense didn’t help themselves, as the interior linemen were being pushed back into the linebackers, who were frozen in space trying to make the correct reads, and running into each other.

I’ve heard people say that you shouldn’t judge the Colts' run defense based on this game. Miami used a lot of Wildcat plays so it’s not fair. That’s utter nonsense because the Dolphins only ran the Wildcat about 11 times.

In my last article, I spoke about the Colts run defense still being suspect. This game and the Jacksonville game are the basis for those comments.

To conclude this article I would just like to point out some things that the Colts could have done to slow down or stop the Wildcat. I got these ideas after reading an article about how Bill Cowher would defend the Wildcat.

1) Defend the perimeter with your outside linebackers and defensive ends. The defensive ends should be playing nine techniques, and the outside linebackers should be backing up the ends. This seals off the edges and prevents runs to the outside.

2) Have one of the DBs like the SS assigned to the offensive player who is receiving the snap. If the DB sees that the QB is going to take off, and run with the ball, then he should shoot down and try to make a tackle. This helps protect against inside running plays gaining huge yards.

3) A majority of Wildcat plays have one of the running backs lined up as the split end, running a sweep pattern in the backfield.

As the sweep occurs, there is a point where he has to slow up a bit to receive the handoff from the QB (see illustration two).

Having your two inside linebackers come on blitzes through the A gaps can disrupt the handoff and breakup the play.

Even if the play calls for a fake handoff the offensive player holding the ball still has to contend with the blitz.

Furthermore, if the SS has done his job, he has keyed in on the fact that the ball carrier is going to run with ball, and come running up to make a play.

Now you have totally disrupted the play, and at the very least the QB or RB will gain minimal yards.

This week the Colts will be faced with one of the fastest running backs in the league. Hopefully, they learned something from that Dolphins game.

Hopefully, they will play better against Chris Johnson than they did the Dolphins.


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