Snap plans are key to defending Wildcat

Several months ago, an NFL head coach was sitting in a film room with his staff, fine-tuning his team’s defensive package against the Wildcat. The video department had spliced together every snap the Miami Dolphins ran out of the formation in 2008, and the compilation was deep into their mind-boggling 38-13 win over the New England Patriots. As the screen flickered with images of Ronnie Brown’s(notes) fourth touchdown run, one of the coaches pointed at a Patriots player.

“Look at [Vince] Wilfork,” he said, spotlighting the New England nose tackle. “He’s playing like [expletive].”

On this particular play, Wilfork hadn’t gotten leverage after the snap, ending up stonewalled by former Dolphins center Samson Satele(notes). One of the coaches theorized that had Wilfork pushed the center back even half a yard, it would have disrupted left guard Justin Smiley(notes). Instead, the coaches watched in disgust as Smiley swooped down the line unobstructed, whisking through a battleship-sized hole and leveling New England safety Brandon Meriweather(notes). Just like that, Smiley had transformed a likely five-yard gain into a 62-yard touchdown by Ronnie Brown.

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“That’s one of the frustrating things about dealing with [the Wildcat],” the head coach said, recalling the film session. “When guys talk about this being a game of inches – when it comes to that formation, that’s not [hyperbole]. You have to be on top of everything. The nose tackle doesn’t get a good one or two feet of push, and the next thing you know it snowballs into a long touchdown run.”

Never has that been more apparent than this offseason. Coaches in every NFL city have spent at least a fraction of their time preparing for some form of the Wildcat, whipping up their own recipe of basic fundamentals. Indeed, every franchise in the league has come up with some form of a base look to deal with the Wildcat or one of its rapidly growing offshoots.

“This is the balancing act between the offensive and defensive coordinators,” said Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith(notes). “Now the defensive coordinators have an opportunity to evaluate [the Wildcat] and figure how to defend it. The thing is defendable, it’s just a matter of getting it done in a timely manner. It’s a constant dance.”

With that in mind, Yahoo! Sports reached out to 10 defensive minds to come up with the six basic principles (three before the snap and three after) for defending the Wildcat. While some coaches and players declined to be quoted or identified, all shared some of the ideologies behind their Wildcat defenses.

Starting with …

Before the snap

Quick recognition means everything
Everyone polled said the first priority is getting 11 defensive players to pay attention to what is happening as soon as the offense breaks the huddle. That’s one of the most glaring things that showed up on tape when Miami unveiled the Wildcat against the Patriots. In the first half, some defensive players were lined up in the wrong spots. Even after halftime adjustments, some appeared to recognize the irregular formation too slowly.

“The whole element is identifying it first,” said St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo. “When they come out of the huddle, you’ve got to get it identified. Everybody thinks that’s easy – it’s not that easy. In the heat of the battle, in the course of a game [it’s tough]. And the teams that are challenging are the teams that have a wideout that can [take the snap] or a running back that can do it. They’ve got the normal personnel in there and all the sudden they come out and it’s a Wildcat [formation].”

The quarterback is typically the first player to tip his hand, either by lining up immediately at wideout, going in motion, or in some cases, running off the field altogether. The first player who sees the quarterback tip the formation is expected to sound the alarm – with an emphasis on vocalizing what they’re seeing to the rest of the defense.

“[The responsibility of recognizing it] is really on everybody,” Spagnuolo said. “The first person who sees it just identifies it and everybody goes from there. Hopefully it just echoes all the way around.”

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Count personnel
Once the defense knows they are facing a Wildcat type of formation, it becomes paramount to know where the personnel is and whether there is an imbalance on one side of the offensive line. On some of Miami’s most successful plays last year, they lined up a guard and eligible tight end on one side of the line, and a guard and two tackles on the other. If defensive players weren’t paying close attention, the five players on the line could look standard. If a defense didn’t adjust to suit personnel matchups, they would typically be overpowered by the heavy side of the line. Defensive coaches have since preached identifying the placement of the tackles.

“You’ve got to be able to recognize what they’re doing with that formation,” the Falcons’ Smith said. “A lot of the teams that are doing it – and the ones that are doing it well – are doing it with the unbalanced lines. They try to outflank you by a lineman. Once you recognize that, you can put yourself in a situation where you’re not at a disadvantage with your alignment.”

As Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers put it, “You’ve got to be sound in terms of your force.”

Know whether the quarterback is “half a man”
If the quarterback is on the field in the formation, some teams study percentages regarding his involvement. If a quarterback is split wide, coaches will figure how often a team runs toward his side, or how often it uses the quarterback in a double-pass scenario, in which the running back takes the snap and laterals it to the quarterback (who then typically throws downfield). If a team appears reluctant to involve a quarterback in a running play or to risk a double pass, they won’t respect him the way they would a normal player. They’ll build a scheme based on 10-on-10 football, essentially throwing the quarterback and the defender that he’s occupying out the window.

“I look at him like he’s a half a man out there,” Capers said. “Most of the time you know it’s a decoy. You know what they’re trying to do. They are trying to get you to trade one for one out there because that’s a good deal for them. Most of the time he’s not going to factor unless they really get extensive with it to where they’ll throw the double-passes.”

Photo Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown takes a direct snap against the Chargers in 2008.
(Doug Benc/Getty Images)

After the snap

Don’t panic
Once the ball is snapped, some Wildcat formations will run a variety of skill position players in different directions. Whether it’s two backs running the option, a wideout coming on a sweep or reverse, or even a quarterback going in motion, coaches pound on the principal of keeping a calm head and sticking to basic football principals. If a running back takes a direct snap, know whether he’s capable of throwing the football. If he isn’t, treat him like a running back who has just taken the snap. If a wideout is coming on a reverse, treat it like a basic reverse. Keep it simple, read blocks and don’t panic and start doing uncharacteristic things.

“A lot of times it’s the confusion that gets you,” Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes) said. “If you can eliminate the confusion, and just get down to playing football, [you’ll be ok]. [It’s] recognizing that a lot of times, they’re just running a normal play, just with a running back in there [at quarterback]. You get caught up in thinking too much and doing something you’re not supposed to be doing. You’ve got to do your job first and trust the other guy to do his.”

The running back throwing the football can be a good thing
Most defensive coaches agree: forcing a skill position player to do something that he usually doesn’t do is an advantage. The key is being prepared for it. So when a running back takes a snap in the Wildcat and then steps back to throw, the defense has – in at least one sense – put itself into an advantageous spot. The key is recognizing that a pass is coming on the back end, and hoping the running back is foolish enough to force the pass rather than throw it away.

“[If it’s a run or pass option play], generally, what you’ve got to do is stop the run part of it first and make the person that’s back there throw it,” Spagnuolo said. “Now, the teams that really have the advantage are the guys that have the person that can go back there and be the runner and still throw it. Baltimore has the backup in Troy Smith(notes). Miami now I’m sure is working with [Pat White(notes)]. Those guys will be a little more challenging, because they can do a little bit of both.

“I think you’ve got to sell your team on stopping the run first and if they throw it, we’ll [adjust] to the pass later on.”

Defensive line penetration tips the scales
When the previously noted unnamed head coach was recalling the film of Miami’s 38-13 win over New England, he noted that better penetration by the Patriots up front would have negated a lot of problems. On several of the Dolphins’ most successful plays, a guard pulled behind the center. On some plays, Wilfork was blown off the ball entirely, opening gaping holes in the middle of the line. In general, coaches say taking away those running lanes in the middle of the formation gives the defense the advantage of pushing the ball toward the sidelines. That means more ground to cover for a ball carrier, more time for a defense to react or recover, and less space for an offensive player to utilize.

“You don’t want to give them vertical running seams,” Capers said. “If they get a pulling [lineman] and all the sudden you’ve got a direct snap and that guy is running downhill and getting vertical into your defense, that’s not a very good proposition. You’ve got to keep him going east and west and not north and south.”

Added the unnamed coach, “[Wilfork] had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen from him in that [38-13] loss. But that’s something you commonly saw when Miami just ran all over. The front of the defense – whatever the alignment was – the [defensive tackles] were almost always losing the battle.

“After [seeing that], my first point of emphasis was attacking the center and guards. I told our [defensive tackles], ‘Once you see that formation, you need to be thinking, OK, I’m going to be explosive off the snap and get leverage, and collapse those gaps.’ Chasing the ball shouldn’t even be [a defensive tackle’s] priority. Closing those creases comes first.

“Disrupt that middle, and you’ve gone a long way toward defeating it.”

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