Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
16 Oct 2008
by Doug Farrar
With the Wildcat formation and all its copycats taking over the NFL (at least in the short term), two things are happening: Teams are drawing up different strains of direct-snap fakery, and pundits are calling every atypical offensive play a "Wildcat" on a no-matter-what basis. But is this particular formation so ubiquitous, or is it simply an indicator that unusual offensive game-planning has found its place?
According to Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee, who ran the thing at Arkansas last year with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in his backfield, there are common denominators when you're drawing up the actual Wildcat. In the Razorbacks' version, the running back taking the snap has three options:
Depending on whether it's pitch or power, the H-back will line up behind and inside or outside the second right tackle -- this is the left tackle moving over to the right in the pure version. The left guard will frequently pull right, leading the open power gap or hitting the second level to block for the pitch. On counters, the emphasis is on protection heading right to leave a cutback lane left.
By my count, there were 13 direct snaps to non-quarterbacks in Week 6 (Readers, please let me know if I missed any, and feel free to detail them in the comments section!) Four teams gave it a shot: the 49ers, Falcons, Browns, and Dolphins. Let's look at how many were the real deal, and how many were sheep in Wildcat's clothing.
San Francisco 49ers
Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers 26
The Niners ran one direct snap to running back (and former Penn State quarterback) Michael Robinson against the Eagles. Why only one? The attempt, with 4:55 left in the first quarter and San Francisco with second-and 1 at the Eagles' 14-yard line, ended before it began, as center Eric Heitmann was busted for a false start on a presnap flinch. Boo!
Wildcat Index: 1. Back to the practice field, guys. You get one point for the attempt to make Frank Gore into the Ricky Williams "sweeper" from the left slot, and left tackle Joe Staley was over on the right side, but everything else was wrong. For one, it helps if your running back doesn't run past the quarterback before the snap -- that tends to reduce the specter of a fake. And where was the H-back? San Francisco found more success with a play they used in the second quarter -- quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan handed off to Robinson, who lateraled to Gore outside. Right now, "Wildcat" does not appear to be in Mike Martz's vocabulary.
Chicago Bears 20 at Atlanta Falcons 22
On third-and-10 from the Chicago 29 with 9:48 left in the first half, and right after a deep pass sailed just over the outstretched hands of Michael Jenkins in the end zone, the Falcons tried a little razzle-dazzle. Atlanta lined up in the shotgun with two backs, and the Bears had eight in the box after safety Mike Brown cheated up. At the snap, Matt Ryan moved out of the way and Jerious Norwood took the ball from the left. Norwood found a seam inside right, rumbled for six yards to the 23, and fumbled the ball after Jenkins ran into him trying to block cornerback Corey Graham in the open field. Tommie Harris recovered the ball, but fumbled it himself, back to running back Jason Snelling.
The weird part of this play was that Harris was on the turf when he handled the loose ball, but since nobody touched him before the ball went through his hands, the down by contact rule did not apply. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Brian Urlacher led to a first down for Atlanta at the Chicago 12-yard line. A huge series of breaks for the Falcons, which they used to tack up their third field goal of the day a few plays later.
Still -- no backfield fakery beyond Ryan moving out of the way, no H-back, no real misdirection. Interesting play? Yes. Wildcat? Nope.
Wildcat Index: 0. Straight run play with a small wrinkle. Falcons, we require more of your formations before we shall let you in the Pantheon. At least get the long snapper involved or something!
However, they weren't done putting Norwood in different types of plays. In their first offensive play of the second half from their own 21, Atlanta lined up with Norwood in the shotgun and Turner as the running back. This was a pseudo-Wildcat look because tight end Ben Hartsock was up at the line outside right tackle to block, not as an H-back. Norwood faked a handoff left to Michael Turner, who headed left with a few Bears biting to that side. Center Todd McClure and right tackle Tyson Clabo pulled right, while Hartsock and right guard Harvey Dahl stayed in to block. Norwood gained 22 yards up the middle as the Falcons parted the Red Sea with misdirection and a smooth pull right, which led the Chicago defense in that direction.
Wildcat Index: 3. The Turner fake was cool, and the blocking nifty, but points must be deducted for the lack of an H-back and extra right tackle.
New York Giants 14 at Cleveland Browns 35
Former Kent State quarterback Josh Cribbs, now one of the NFL's best return men, got a chance to return to his roots behind center on three plays against the Giants on Monday night. The first time came with 6:12 left in the first quarter, and the Browns with first-and-10 on their own 29. They lined up shotgun, single back, with Jamal Lewis sharing the backfield. At the snap, Cribbs faked to Lewis and darted upfield to the left for a 12-yard gain. A nice play, and Jaws, you know we love you at FO, but that ain't no Wildcat like you implied.
Wildcat Index: 0. More a simple read-option than anything -- there was no running back sweep to force a defense to bite that way, nor was there an unbalanced right formation or an H-back. Just tight end Eric Heiden outside right tackle.
The second play happened with 3:39 left in the first half, second-and-9 from the Giants' 44. Another "Flash" formation (that's what the Browns call it), and Lewis got the ball this time, running into the belly of the Giants' line for two yards.
Wildcat Index: 0. At least there were no booth references to Wildcats this time...
With just under a minute gone in the second half and the ball at the New York 46, Cleveland expanded its repertoire. This time, Derek Anderson played himself as the quarterback, with Cribbs as the sweeper from the left slot. Fullback Lawrence Vickers was lined up as the H-back, and running back Jerome Harrison lined up wide right. At the snap, Anderson handed off to Cribbs on the sweep, but then Cribbs pitched to Harrison, who was coming the other way. As the G-Men pushed their defense in Cribbs' direction, thinking that they had the Wildcat foiled, Harrison had a clear enough path on the left sideline for a 33-yard gain, down to the Giants 13-yard line.
Wildcat Index: 10. Beautiful! Purists must forgive the Brownies their lack of an unbalanced line in this case; three linemen were blocking downfield for Harrison as the Giants recovered to get to the left side of the field. Not only did they run the formation to fit the play, they added a set the Dolphins haven't shown us yet. As a result, we'll also forgive the quarterback involvement.
And speaking of the "originators"...
Miami Dolphins 28 at Houston Texans 29
On their first official Wildcat of the day against the Texans, with 6:59 left in the first quarter and first-and-10 at their own 45, the Dolphins ran it the way they like. Three receivers, tight end David Martin as the H-back to the right, left tackle Jake Long outside right tackle Vernon Carey. Houston 's defense was ready for either the Steeler sweep or the Power inside -- they had six on the line and nine total in the box -- even the corners were looking in the backfield. Yes, this is foreshadowing. As Ronnie Brown took the snap, Ricky Williams came into the backfield from the left slot and took the ball. Houston's defense was biting all the way, taking away the right side with a gaggle of defenders. As Williams headed outside, DeMeco Ryans tripped him up after a two-yard gain.
Wildcat Index: 8. The Texans were ready for this one, but you got the feeling that Miami's coaching staff was just setting them up to see how they'd react to it. Chad Pennington confirmed this after the game.
On the next play, Miami set up the same -- the only difference was that quarterback Chad Pennington lined up wide right instead of wide left. Again, Houston's defense bunched up to their left, and running back Patrick Cobbs was the inside receiver. Cobbs' fake block absolutely sold the play -- at the snap, it looked just like another Steeler Sweep, and Cobbs started to chip safety Brandon Harrison before heading further downfield. The Texans were completely unprepared for this: As Williams headed to the right sideline with the ball, he handed it off to Pennington going the other way. Cobbs had just released from Harrison, and by the time Harrison had the dupe figured out, Cobbs was ten yards in front of him. Cobbs caught the ball at the Houston 21, and there was no defender near him as he sauntered in for the touchdown.
Wildcat Index: 11. This one goes to eleven because of the perfect execution, and the setup on the previous play. Broadcaster Solomon Wilcots said it best: "David Lee has become the Picasso of the National Football League."
The Dolphins tried another one at the end of the first quarter, with a direct snap to Williams, a fake to receiver Davone Bess, and Willians heading up the middle for three yards on second-and 7 from the Miami 26.
Wildcat Index: 4. Debit points because they should know better than to run such an unexciting maneuver after the previous goofiness. Did the Falcons draw this one up?
For brevity's sake, we'll just summarize that the Dolphins ran five more direct snaps in this game for a total of 19 yards (Wildcat Index: Yawn! ). The Fins showed that they're still in the throes of a rebuild with a 29-28 loss. Ironically, it was a bit of trickery by the Texans that did Miami in -- a fourth-down quarterback draw by Matt Schaub with seven seconds left in the game. Houston went with an empty backfield, leading the Dolphins into a quarters coverage that left the middle of the end zone undefended.
They died by the gadget this time, but the Dolphins are the best at what they do. Don't believe anyone who tells you that this is just a fad until and unless some defense figures out a way to stop its seemingly ever-growing permutations.
I'm not sure what's more amazing: That the Atlanta Falcons are 4-2, the last-second win over the Bears that gave them that record, or the performance of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Having watched the Falcons' win over Chicago in real time, I knew I'd be writing something about that amazing game. There were half a dozen players and series I could have chosen, but I finally decided to deal with the most underrated aspect of Atlanta's latest win -- a defense that helped save the game in the fourth quarter. Down 19-10 with 13:25 left in the game, the Bears started at the 50-yard line after a 33-yard kickoff return by running back Garrett Wolfe. Chicago drove 42 yards in eight plays, and had first-and-10 at the Atlanta 8-yard line. That's when a Falcons defense ranked 16th in red zone DVOA rose up and turned the Bears back.
First-and-goal from the Atlanta 8 (9:21)
The Bears went with four receivers, including tight end Greg Olsen wide right. The Falcons countered with a 5-2-4 (or maybe a 5-1.5-4.5, with linebacker Michael Boley covering right slot receiver Marty Booker). At the snap, Kyle Orton took a very quick three-step drop and threw to Olsen on a skinny fade to the right side of the end zone. Olsen tried to get outside position on cornerback Brent Grimes, but Grimes covered the lob from Orton, overcoming the receiver's height advantage (6-foot-5 to Grimes' 5-10) by timing his jump perfectly and batting the ball away as it reached Olsen's hands.
Second-and-goal from the Atlanta 8 (9:16)
The Bears set up in an I-formation left with Desmond Clark and Olsen lined up outside left tackle John St. Clair. Booker was the only wideout, to the right. At the snap, Orton pitched left to Matt Forte, who headed outside behind the two tight ends. Clark and Olsen took out end Chauncey Davis and linebacker Keith Brooking in their man-on-man matchups. St. Clair pulled outside the tight ends and removed cornerback Chris Houston outside, while McKie sealed Lawyer Milloy in the lane. Forte gained seven yards to the Atlanta 1 with outstanding help. I love unbalanced power formations like this. the Panthers run them a lot (as do the Dolphins when they're not doing all that trickery), and they're always fun to watch if you like smashmouth football with a twist.
Third-and-goal from the Atlanta 1 (8:41)
Everyone was in goal-line here, and McKie tried bulling straight ahead with the handoff, only to be stopped short by Lofton, who had enough room to get some push inside the A-gap after nose tackle/midrise apartment building Grady Jackson blew center Olin Kreutz the heck up. No type of play better indicates why some teams love to have cement mixers like Jackson on their rosters.
Fourth-and-goal from the Atlanta 1 (8:03)
On their final try, the Bears went with the inverted wishbone, and McKie and Olsen as the lead blockers. Good push up the middle, but as Forte tried jumping over the pile, Brooking, then Jackson, then free safety Erik Coleman, stopped him short. Head coach Mike Smith was on the field celebrating with backup running back Jason Snelling, and though the Bears weren't through scoring, this drive had real meaning for the Falcons. The Bears scored ten points in their next two drives before Matt Ryan and Jason Elam stole the game at the end, but that defensive stand is something a rebuilding team may need more than any other kind. After all this franchise has been through recently, things are brightening up in Atlanta.
Now, about that whole "Arthur-Blank-on-the-sideline" thing...
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27, Carolina Panthers 3
I had hoped to write more specifically about something that happened in Tampa Bay last Sunday, but these pesky gadget plays conspired to steal most of my time. In a week where headlines have been dominated by this or that star-helmeted soap opera, what Earnest Graham did for his Buccaneers against the Panthers is worth more attention than it's received. When backup fullback Byron Storer suffered a torn ACL, Graham switched to fullback without complaint and helped teammate Warrick Dunn run for 115 yards on 22 carries. This was Dunn's highest yardage total in two years, since he put up 146 yards against the Giants for the Falcons on October 15, 2006. Graham rushed five times for only 11 yards, but Dunn recognized his teammate's contributions.
"You can't say enough about Earnest." Dunn told the media after the game. "This guy sacrificed his day to get in there and block and he did a great job. He was reading it the right way, putting hits on guys. He's the ultimate team guy. I'm speechless a little bit because of what he sacrificed for this football team today. That's one of the most unselfish acts I've seen on a football field in a long time."
Dunn knows more about unselfish acts than most. Graham's go at fullback was temporary -- Tampa Bay signed Jameel Cook to fill that role -- but his versatility, and willingness to have his stats suffer for the good of the team, are qualities worth noting.
14 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2008, 8:34am by KyleW