So now we get to one of the trick play types that you might have seen in the past in the NFL. This formation is known as the Wildcat and can be identified by three factors.
The first is that there will be a different ‘skill player’ lined up behind the center waiting to receive the snap. This is usually a running back but can also be a tight end or wide receiver. This player lines up the same as the quarterback would in the Shotgun (5-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage).
The second factor identifying the Wildcat is the unbalanced offensive line. So far in the NFL Fan School series of posts I’ve been going on about swapping players in and out in an attempt to balance the line to keep the defense guessing. This formation deliberately unbalances the line so that plays to the stronger side have more chance of over-powering the defense.
I think it might be a good idea to insert an image right here:
As you can see from the image above, this formation is very biased to one side and the play, most of the time, will go to that side.
The third thing that identifies the Wildcat is what the running back (HB2) does before the snap. He runs at full speed parallel to the line of scrimmage and crosses the centre point close to the HB1. We now have a Wildcat formation ready to roll.
Easy to read next play?
As I said, the formation is pretty biased to the strong-side and therefore pretty obvious which side a play will go. Where the trickery comes into play and why the defense has to stay alert is what happens at the point HB2 crosses in front of HB1. Only on rare occasions would there be anything other than a running play done but sometimes you might line up a HB or WR who can throw the ball as well. Take the Cleveland Browns in the 2016 season, for example, when they ran a version of the formation with Terrelle Pryor receiving the snap. At the start of his career, he was a quarterback but transitioned to wide receiver (very well as it happens) after not finding a starting QB job which nearly scuppered his career in the league. After the Browns suffered injuries to all of their QB’s during that season, they started to mix things up and ran more than the average number of plays from this kind of formation.
Anyway, back to running from the Wildcat formation. What usually happens here is HB1 either hands the ball to HB2 as he crosses in front and he (HB2) carries on running to the outside at full speed – which he has already reached prior to the snap. Or, HB1 fakes the handoff to HB2 and keeps it himself. There are three things that can happen here as he can either throw it to a player who’s gone off upfield on a pass pattern, run it up the middle behind the center (C) and guards (G) or take off running to the outside that HB2 has just come from.
A further thing that could happen involves the QB who’s been standing out wide so far. HB2 crosses in front of HB1 and takes the ball from him via a handoff – this now looks like it’s a run to the outside of the strong side. But hang on, the QB is making his way back towards the centre of the field behind the line of scrimmage and further back than HB2 is running. HB2 tosses the ball to the QB as he passes him and he (the QB) now looks for one of the other players who’s on his way downfield on a pass pattern.
Confused? Good! So are the defense, hopefully.
Having said all that, this formation isn’t used that much these days in the NFL. You might see it pop up now and then on rare occasions (as in extreme occasions like the Browns had in 2016) but generally, it doesn’t work that well anymore as defenses got wise to it and knew what to look for – pretty much like the read option.
Position variations of the Wildcat
As with all formations, there are variations to how it can set up. The image above shows a TE and FB (fullback) lining up around the tackles (T), but these can be replaced with other TE’s and/or WR’s. As is the norm, and is one of the great things about this game, it depends on what play(s) the team is running and what players they think will execute it/them the best. Maybe the TE on the end of the line (next to the tackle) is replaced with a wide receiver and he sets up further out wide, or the QB sets up to the other side of the formation to keep out of the way so he doesn’t get injured – a bit of a waste of a blocker but he’s an expensive asset.
The reason the QB doesn’t leave the field to allow another player who can catch or run or block is so that the defense can’t read what is going on before the teams line up. If they saw the QB going off the field they would instantly think, “Aye up, something not right’s going on here! Looks like they’re setting up the Wildcat,” and they’d sub players in accordingly to deal with it. Once the offense is lining up and they see where the QB is going, it’s too late to sub players in and out.
All this keeps defenses and us spectators guessing and looking forward to what’s about to happen.