View Full Version : On the Steelers: Wildcat package Dolphins pioneered is starting to disappear from the

10-24-2010, 09:47 AM
On the Steelers: Wildcat package Dolphins pioneered is starting to disappear from the field
NFL Week 7 | Steelers At Dolphins
Sunday, October 24, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After laying out Joshua Cribbs with one of two vicious hits he would deliver against the Cleveland Browns, Steelers linebacker James Harrison looked back on the moment in the locker room and uttered, somewhat cryptically, "That ends the wildcat. It's out the window."

The reference was to Cribbs, a multi-dimensional wide receiver, not being able to run the offensive package that gave the Steelers a Harrison-sized headache of their own in December.

Yet, in a curious way, the reference might be applicable to the wildcat package in general and even the Miami Dolphins in particular.

To use another Harrison reference, the wildcat may have gone to sleep.

The package the Dolphins surprisingly sprang on the New England Patriots two years ago that took the National Football League by storm might be fading away faster than Paula Abdul. Like the "46" defense popularized by the Chicago Bears in the 1980s and the run-and-shoot offense that became the wave of the '90s, it is beginning to disappear from the NFL landscape, a wrinkle whose time has perhaps come and gone.

This is especially true in Miami, where the Dolphins have started to de-emphasize the package for several reasons, among them an improved passing game. They didn't use it at all in their victory in Green Bay -- just the fifth time that has happened since they ambushed the Patriots in a 25-point rout in September 2008 and slowly have watched the production from the package drop like a Tim Lincecum breaking ball.
Wildcat: The rise and fall

"That depends on the time of day, the week, what the score is, and what's happening in the game," Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning said the other day. "We still maintain what we call direct snap runs and passes with Ronnie [Brown] and we will use them accordingly when we feel the necessity in the particular time and place to do it. It would be safe to say that, in the last two weeks, we hadn't used it, and if that's de-emphasizing it, that's de-emphasizing it."

Brown, the maestro of the wildcat who would catch, run and throw in the package, has been silenced. He has carried 11 times for 22 yards on direct-snap plays and has attempted one pass -- an incompletion -- in five games.

As they head into the 1 p.m. game today against the Steelers (4-1) at Sun Life Stadium, the Dolphins (3-2) have rushed 16 times for 27 yards from the wildcat in 2010.

"At the end of day, it's really three runs -- the sweep, the power and the counter," said ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back Merril Hoge. "Those three runs you face every day. You get an extra blocker, but that's really all it is."

The Steelers experimented with the wildcat package during the '09 preseason after borrowing some of its nuances from the University of Arkansas, the original purveyors of the formation. They called the package "Hog," in honor of the Razorbacks. But they trotted out the package just once after the regular season started and scrapped it when they saw how quickly their defense adapted to the intricacies of the formation in practice.

"The reason why it will never develop and keep growing and evolving is one critical thing that no one talks about and why college football will never translate to the NFL -- hash marks," Hoge said. "You look at the college hash mark, college football is played on the perimeter. The NFL is played in the middle. You look at the athletes in the NFL, with all the blitzing, it will never, ever be a staple of an offense in the NFL -- ever -- because of that."

And defenses have caught on how to stop it.
The introduction

After losing 20 of their previous 21 games, the Dolphins unveiled a new strategy in a 25-point rout of the Patriots Sept. 22, 2008, and a new fad was thrust on the NFL.

In seven plays with Brown as the triggerman, the Dolphins gained 138 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 38-13 victory in Foxboro, Mass., that ended the Patriots' NFL-record regular-season winning streak at 21 games.

The night was significant for the Dolphins because it was the first victory in the Bill Parcells regime. But it was momentous for the league as well because new coach Tony Sparano was bold enough -- perhaps desperate enough -- to try an offensive scheme that dated to 1907 when it was called the single-wing by Glenn "Pop" Warner.

It was called the wildcat, and the Dolphins introduced it to the NFL because their quarterback coach, David Lee, ran the package when he was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.

"Moses came down from the mountain," Sparano said of the package because it triggered a metamorphosis in the Dolphins. They went on to finish 11-5 and win the AFC East -- their first winning season since 2005.

"It was kind of one of those things where coach gives you a play and you get excited about it, but you don't run it and you're kind of like, 'Oh man, I knew we weren't going to run it,' " Brown said, recalling the game against the Patriots. "But, when he called it the first time, I was excited, and now I'm just thinking, 'Let's not mess it up, just give us an opportunity to be able to do it again.' And, you know, it was a big play and then another big play and then another play, and I'm like, 'Oh, we got something here.' It was just exciting."

Several teams have since employed the wildcat, including the Browns, who use Cribbs, a former college quarterback, as the triggerman. In this package, most teams will line their quarterback as a wide receiver and the running back or wide receiver in the shotgun formation behind center.

When the Dolphins first introduced the look, Brown was in the shotgun and running back Ricky Williams was in the slot. Williams would go in short motion before the snap and create a "mesh point" with Brown after he received the snap, allowing for several variations of a run or even a pass.

But the run rarely, if ever, was to the side of the field where the quarterback lined up because it put the quarterback at risk of trying to block a linebacker.

"It's like anything -- the more you see it, the more prepared you can be to defend it," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "It still comes down to your people have to out-execute their people, depending on what Sunday you're talking about. But, in terms of understanding what you're looking at, teams are better versed in it."

Last month, the Dolphins ran eight plays from the Wildcat formation for minus-18 yards against the New York Jets. Last week, before he was knocked out of the game by Harrison, Cribbs ran three times for 2 yards from the wildcat, including the play on which he was injured.

But, in Week 13 of the '09 season, Cribbs ran eight times for 87 yards, including a 37-yard run, from the wildcat formation against the Steelers.

When asked if teams are starting to better defend the wildcat, Sparano said, "I think they are, yeah, no question.

"I think that you're starting to see a few more looks to it. I think a large part of that has to do, maybe, with more teams running it. ... And in our division, the Jets run it pretty well. I think that their team gets a little bit more work on it because they're probably running it against them in [off-season training] and that type of stuff. I think that's had a little bit to do with it."

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said, "There's nothing in this league that will ever stick. You always have to have that sort of balance. Teams are figuring out how to stop the wildcat and it doesn't really take teams that long."
Finding the weaknesses

Most NFL defenses have developed a "check" system to play the wildcat when it is used in a game, and the Steelers are no different.

Last week, they spent more time preparing against the wildcat because they assumed the Browns would use it more with a rookie quarterback, Colt McCoy, making his first start. This week, the amount of prep time is less, even though the game is against the Dolphins.

"By numbers, they have used it less," LeBeau said. "But you never know what they're going to do on any given Sunday. But they've definitely come down from what they have done before."

The Dolphins have de-emphasized the package because they have developed a passing game with quarterback Chad Henne and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Devone Bess -- something they didn't have when they introduced the wildcat to the league two years ago.

The first indication came when they cut former West Virginia quarterback Pat White in training camp -- one year after using the 44th overall pick in the draft to select the player who was considered the prototypical wildcat quarterback because he could run and catch.

"This is no different than the '46' Bears defense," Hoge said, referring to the Buddy Ryan-designed scheme that propelled Chicago to a Super Bowl title in the 1985 season. "When that first came out, you were scared because you had never seen it before and the athletes they had in that defense were unbelievable.

"But once you started realizing the weaknesses of that defense, you find out how to handle it, how to attack it. Once teams started to figure that out, you couldn't wait for them to get in it.

"It's no different with the wildcat."

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