Game Play Thursday : The Wildcat

Chances are, most of you live in the northeast. Mostly because chances are, most of you are my direct friends and family. (Hi, guys!) So there’s a high probability that you’ve heard reference of the wildcat formation, which seems to have received a lot of attention from the AFC East in recent years.

The Miami Dolphins liberally employed it in the 2008 season and the Jets had the highly-debated option to use it this season with Tim Tebow, an option they probably would have benefited from. (As for the other AFC East teams, the Pats have Brady and the Bills are the Bills…so that’s the end of that.)

So what is the wildcat?

I could give you the easy way out and tell you that the wildcat formation is when someone other than the quarterback takes the snap. But there are two flaws in that explanation. 1. It’s not true (but widely accepted anyway because it’s the easiest way to think of the wildcat). And 2. You are smart enough to learn the real formation. I’m not going to underestimate your intelligence in learning or mine in explaining. So here we go!

Let’s start with the shotgun. The shotgun formation is a typical offensive formation in college and NFL football in which the quarterback takes the snap from 5-7 yards behind the center. It’s one that you’re likely to see on any given weekend. I made this illustration to break the formation down into units so that you can clearly see who/where everyone is: the circles are offensive linemen, the squares are skill position players, and the hexagon is the quarterback.

football, advanced, wildcat, shotgun

It’s not perfect…and it’s why I’m learning how to use Photoshop! Better illustrations coming soon.

So the shotgun formation employs all the usual suspects where they are typically located: the offensive line is where they always are, the tight end is lined up on the offensive line to help block, the wide receiver on the tight end’s side (aka: the flanker) is about a yard off the line, the wide receiver on the other side (aka: the split end) is on the line, and two running backs are lined up just in front of the QB.

In the Wildcat Formation, three things generally happen:

1. A skill position players takes the snap. Usually, a running back.

2. The motion is a jet sweep. I can sense your question marks from across cyber space. Stay with me, here! We haven’t talked about motion/formations a whole lot yet, but fear not! We’re not going to break it all down right now, but basically, “motion” means that one player (and only one player – any more than that is an illegal motion) is moving at the time of the snap. A “sweep” is when a player (usually a running back) is running parallel to the line of scrimmage so that the offensive line can block for him. In the jet sweep, the motion called in the wildcat formation, a player (usually a running back) takes off in a dead sprint to receive the handoff and either keeps going in a run play or takes off in a fake.

How are we doing?

Not too bad, right?

Ok, part three:


3. The offensive line is unbalanced. Remember the formation of the offensive line above? The typical center in the middle, the guards on either side of him, and the tackles outside of the guards? That’s a balanced line. In the wildcat formation, the line is unbalanced. Everyone is still on the line, but in different places.

Let’s see how this works. Here’s a basic wildcat formation:

football, advanced, wildcat

Let’s take a look at what’s different from the shotgun formation.

1. Where’s the QB? You’ll notice that there is no hexagon in this diagram, because the quarterback is usually not on the field in the wildcat formation. He is replaced by a skill position player, usually a tight end, who often gets added to the offensive line to be an extra blocker.

2. A running back is taking the snap. See the running back farthest back? Lined up directly behind center? He’ll be getting the ball snapped to him.

3. The line is unbalanced. The center is not in the middle, the guards are not outside of him, and the tackles are not outside of the guards.

Now, using what we learned about the definitions of a wildcat play above, let’s see what this would look like when the ball is snapped:

football, advanced, wildcat

Let’s line it up against our three keys for a wildcat play:

1. A skill position players takes the snap. Done. The running back lined up behind the center is taking the snap.

2. The motion is a jet sweep. Check. The other running back on the left is running a jet sweep. In this play, he’ll be running a fake and the other running back will be running the ball upfield through the gap provided for him between the guards.

3. The offensive line is unbalanced. Yep! We’re so over this; we know where they usually line up and know that they’re jumbled in this play. Done.

So now you’ve got it. I know you’ve got it! And you’ll be able to explain the wildcat in fine form to anyone who asks…probably more efficiently than anyone else in the room. Have fun!

Questions/comments/concerns? Leave ’em in the comments and let’s chat!

(A special thanks to this source and this source and this source for helping make this tutorial much less harrowing.)

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