Understanding the Wildcat:

"Over the years, young coaches who want to get their teams to throw the football have written to me to ask about the best way to get started. My professional advice never includes my personal secret - knowing the single wing."

-Lavell Edwards BYU Head Coach 1972-2000



Last season the Miami Dolphins began to run a formation called the Wildcat. While many announcers and seeming many NFL coaches were very confused the Wildcat is based off the single wing offense, an offense almost as old as the game of American Football itself.

The Wildcat offense as run by the Miami Dolphins (other teams use direct snaps to a tailback, but very few use the Wildcat in the same way that the Miami Dolphins do and now even the Miami Dolphins are beginning to tweak the Wildcat) has four essential characteristics.

1.) 1.) The use of an unbalanced offensive line. As you can notice in the videos below the offensive line has two tackles on the right hand side of the offensive line, this is an unbalanced offensive line. A balanced offensive line is what we are used to seeing, a center flanked by a guard on both sides who are flanked by tackles on both sides. However, the Miami Dolphins use a "tackle over" (other teams also use unbalanced lines, most notable the Baltimore Ravens, but not all unbalanced lines have two tackles on ones side) unbalanced line meaning that the both tackles and a guard are on one side of the offensive line (typically with a fullback) while a guard and tightend are on the other. Lining up the offensive line in this way puts a lot of power in a very concentrated place (the right C and D gap).



1.) 2.) The use of the jet sweep. The jet sweep (see below for a video) is used to pull the linebackers away from the tailback running the power play. The jet sweep also lets the tailback get to the outside as fast, if not faster, than a toss play. The tailback running the jet sweep, will run right under the tailback receiving the snap and will take the ball at full speed right behind the fullback and a occasionally a pulling guard. The tailback who handed off the ball will then fake running to the other side to pull the linebackers away from the tailback running the jet sweep. Ricky Williams average about five yards a carry running the jet sweep.

3.) An athletic player at the quarterback position. This means that it is not the wildcat if Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is taking the snap. Instead the ball will be snapped to a tailback like Ronnie Brown, a wide receiver like Joshua Cribbs, or any other skill player who can carry the ball. This player doesn’t need to be able to throw a perfect deep out route, but the player does need to have the ability to complete simple crossing routes and other relatively easy throws. This is not the single defining characteristic of the Wildcat, as many announcers seem to believe.

Putting an athletic player at the quarterback position is done to give a numbers advantage to the offense. Typically the offense will be wasting one player on a rushing play, the quarterback. Rarely does the quarterback do much of anything on a running play all he does is hand off the ball, sometimes perform a fake, and even more rarely does he does he attempt to block. However, by making the quarterback the runner the offense can have one more blocker during a run play (or at least make the fake more effective).



1.) 4.) The quarterback is split wide. This means that the quarterback lines up at the wide receiver position. This is obviously not done because of the quarterback’s blocking abilities instead it is done to fake out the defense. If the quarterback were not in the huddle the defense would know the wildcat was coming and would send in the correct personnel accordingly, but by keeping the quarterback on the field the offense is forcing the defense to stay in their normal personnel groupings. The obvious continuation of this idea is the Wild Horses formation run by the Denver Broncos where the quarterback starts split out wide and then motions under center (For a quick breakdown of the Wild Horses formation read the article written over at Notice the same reliance on the Power play, the inside zone (a common play out of most formations) and counter plays which were also run multiple times from this set.)



Like most NFL offenses the Wildcat is relatively simple in its design. There are only three run plays and while there have been multiple passing plays out of the Wildcat they all come from two basic plays (at least that I can get film for).

1.) 1.)Jet Sweep. (Steeler is the name this play is given by the Miami Doplhins)

The Jet Sweep is described above, so a lengthy explanation is not necessary. Remember that the Jet Sweep is the base that the Wildcat formation is based on. A player will come in motion from the left of the formation, receive the handoff and try to break the run to the outside. This play is the base of the Wildcat formation because it gets the defense flowing towards the sideline, which opens up the other running plays in the formation. (The Jet Sweep will be faked every play out of the formation so that the defense has to always take it into account.) Here is video, again, of the Miami Dolphins running the Jet Sweep play against the New England Patriots:

Here is a diagram of the Jet Sweep:


via (I apologize for the size of the image.)

2.) Power

The Power play is why the Jet Sweep is called. The Jet Sweep play sets up the Power in a similar way to how the outside zone run sets up the cutback in a zone blocking scheme. The Power play is run the same way that it would be out of most formations:

"The blocking of this play is pretty simple. The "playside" offensive linemen will block "down" meaning they will block the defender to their inside. This means the "playside" guard and center will block the outside shoulder of the defenders over them and the "playside" tackle will block the defender to his inside. Often the "playside" tackle while blocking the inside defender will used the technique of aiming for the back foot that was described above for zone blocking runs, this will allow the tackle to head up field and block a linebacker after double teaming the defender over the guard. However, keep in mind that by blocking down the "playside" tackle is letting his man, the outside defender, run free.

Just like the advantage gained by offensive linemen who take a sidestep in zone running plays blocking "down" allows offensive linemen to get great leverage on their assigned defender. The advantage the offensive linemen have in leverage should allow them to literally block their defenders out of the play. The "down" blocking done by the offensive linemen also allows double teams right at the point of attack (where the tailback is running). The "down" blocking effectively seals off the backside of the Power run.

The only reason that the tackle can allow his defender to go free is that he has help, often from a fullback or an h-back. This fullback or h-back uses a "kick out block" meaning that he blocks the defender while facing towards the sideline. This "kick out block" just creates yet another seal, the fullback or h-back is blocking the defender so that the fullback or h-backs body is between the defender and the tailback. The tailback is therefore presented with a very clear running lane. When done properly it should appear as a tunnel or railroad tracks with blockers lining either side.

The last part of the blocking involved in the Power run is done by the pulling guard (or a very athletic pulling tackle). This player will lead the tailback through the gap and block the first defender he sees; often this defender is a linebacker. The tailback following the guard ensures that there is no way (short of whiffing his block) that the guard can make the wrong block. The tailback will adjust his running angle in such a way that the guard will be blocking the defender away from him."

Here is a diagram of this play:



The Wildcat formation is set up perfectly for the Power play. The fullback is closer to the line of scrimmage and also closer to the outside of the offensive line, both of these differences make it even easier for him to block the unblocked outside defender. Placing both tackles on the same side means that an offensive lineman is not wasted blocking a player who will not affect the play. Lastly, placing the runner at the quarterback position gives the offense a numbers advantage while running the play (as discussed above).

Here is video of this being run for a touchdown by the Miami Dolphins against the New England Patriots.

3.) Counter (70 Weak)

The counter or 70 Weak as it is called by the Miami Dolphins is also run in a similar way to how it ran out of typical formations:

"In a Counter play the tailback will take a quick step to the opposite side of the field from where he plans to run. This will hopefully cause the linebackers to flow to the wrong side of the field making the blocking even simpler for the offensive linemen. The linemen will block "down" gaining the same advantages as mentioned above. The offensive linemen will have good leverage against the defenders allowing the offensive linemen to seal the defenders out of the play and the "playside" tackle will be able to initially double a defender and then go up field and block a linebacker because he is letting the "playside" outside defender run free. However, in most traditional two back sets the benefit of the pulling guard is amplified even further in the counter play. The fullback will block the outside defender on the side that the tailback makes his initial (and misleading) step towards. This allows not only the guard, but also the tackle to pull "playside" (the defender the tackle was responsible for is being blocked by the full-back). Below is a diagram from an old Nebraska playbook of the Counter play out of a two back set."

However, there are also some important differences. Due to having two tackles on the right side of the offensive line one tackle will pull (along with a guard) while one tackle will stay. Typically the outside tackle will take one step inside to block a defender while the inside tackle and the right guard will immediately pull towards the side the tailback is running. Both the fullback and the outside tackle (the one who does not pull) will block the outside defenders (usually with a cut block). The last major difference is that the tightend will let the defender directly over him go free. This defender will be picked up by the center (the left guard blocks "down" to take the defender over the center) and the tightend will head up field to block a linebacker. Here is video of this play being ran:

To clarify this play I will again go over the roles of the offensive players during this play. One player will go in motion to receive the fake for the Jet Sweep . The "quarterback" (the player receiving he snap) will take a step towards the right as if he was about to run the Power play, but will then run towards the left. The fullback will cut block the outside defender. The outermost tackle will block "down" while the inner tackle and right guard pull to the left. The center will block the defender directly over the tight end. The left guard will block "down" to block the defender directly over the center. Lastly, the tightend will let the defender directly over him go free and will head up field to block a linebacker.

These three plays the Jet Sweep, Power, and Counter play constitute all of the running plays run out of the Wildcat formation. However, occasionally (two or three times a game) the Miami Dolphins will pass out of the Wildcat.

1.) 1.) PA Jet Sweep

In this play the "quarterback" (the player receiving the snap) will fake the Jet Sweep handoff and will run towards the opposite sideline. The offensive line will block as if the Jet Sweep were being ran. These two aspects of this play will pull the defense in the opposite direction of the "quarterback" as he rolls out.

The receivers will then run the same routes they would on a typical bootleg play action. The fullback will run a shoot route and also might block for the "quarterback" if needed. The tighend will run a corner route at about twelve yards deep. The receiver (lined up between the fullback and the "true quarterback")will run a crossing route hitting the sideline about ten yards deep. The quarterback will begin a go route, but will often stop because the play is moving in the opposite direction.

The crossing route, shoot, and corner route create a flood against zone and the players running the crossing route and the corner route will often be matched up against linebackers if the defense is in man coverage.

Below is video of the Miami Dolphins running this pass play:

2.) Quarterback Reverse

This play allows the "true quarterback" to throw the ball. The ball will be handed off to the player running the Jet Sweep and the offensive line will block for the Jet Sweep run. However, the player running the Jet Sweep will hand the ball off to the quarterback who fakes a block and then sprints behind the offensive line. The receiver (lined up between the fullback and the "true quarterback") will stand still as if about to throw a block and then will run straight down field. The "quarterback" who handed off the ball will run a wheel route (where he runs towards the sideline and then heads up field). The hope is that against both man and zone defenses the fake on the Jet Sweep will pull the safeties down to allow the deep pass. Here is video of this play being run by the Miami Dolphins against the Carolina Panthers:

(for a better breakdown than mine check out this video of this same play being run against the Houston Texans)

Now while most have dismissed the Wildcat as a quickly passing fad I believe it is here to stay. While most teams fail to run it correctly, instead thinking of it only as a gadget, the Miami Dolphins understand that the Wildcat is really just Power football (pun intended) dressed up in a new formation.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR.