Wildcat Review: The Passing Game

| June 28, 2011

We recently began a look at current state of the wildcat offense in the NFL by defining it and examining how it produces in the run game. Today, we look at what happens when a wildcat alignment leads to a throw.
 
It’s the occasional wildcat pass that keeps the defense honest and, in turn, helps wildcat runs enjoy some of the success they do. With a non-QB at the helm, passing won’t be a consistent threat, but, as with all things wildcat, the elements of disguise and misdirection are central.
 
You would think players that don’t play quarterback would see a high fail rate when acting as passers, but that isn’t always the case. The lifetime passing numbers for LaDainian Tomlinson, for example, are 12 passes and eight completions for 143 yards and seven touchdowns.
 
However, when we look at all non-QB’s throwing the ball from 2010 wildcat formations, we see results closer to what we’d expect. We’ve also seen three teams using almost the exact same wildcat pass play for big gains – and not the teams you’re probably thinking of.
 

Passing and the Wild Cat

As we saw in the last article, with a running back or wide receiver lining up at quarterback in the wildcat, the play is rarely a pass. In fact, just 7.5% of wildcat plays featured passes last year; on 11 occasions, the man lining up as the quarterback threw the ball. The non-QB acting as QB the most was Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs, who completed two of three passes for 29 yards, and was sacked once.
 
Overall, these 11 plays weren’t very successful. Five of the 11 passes were completed for just 25 yards, a touchdown and an interception. While generally not as successful as with a quarterback throwing, the value remains in showing the option to the defense. It’s also a very, very small sample size to look at, though there’s another, even smaller set that has led to some very successful plays.
 

Wildcat + Double Reverse + Throw = Big Plays

On 58% of 2010’s wildcat plays, the team’s usual quarterback was still on the field, usually lining up as a receiver. The initial advantage of doing this is that the defense doesn’t see the quarterback come off the field, so it’s later in the process that they realize what’s coming and have less time to prepare. The obvious disadvantage for the offense is in run blocking if the run goes in the direction of the quarterback. There is, of course, also the possibility of the quarterback getting hurt as he may be mixed up in an assignment that is beyond his build. There is, however, another advantage that the Chiefs, Cowboys, and Eagles put to use.
 
In the Week 3 game between the Chiefs and 49ers, the Chiefs were up by a touchdown early in the third quarter. Thomas Jones lined up as the wildcat quarterback, took the snap and gave the ball to Dexter McCluster who had motioned toward the backfield. Matt Cassel, initially lined up at the opposite receiver spot, also came behind the formation, received a pitch from McCluster and heaved the ball downfield into the waiting arms of Dwayne Bowe for a 45-yard touchdown. San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson was sold on the end around for just a moment, but it was enough for Dwayne Bowe to run right by him.
 
In Week 7, the Eagles were down by four in the second quarter to the Titans, and executed a very similar play. Jeremy Maclin began with the ball, gave it to LeSean McCoy, who then gave it to Kevin Kolb. The ensuing pass was a little underthrown and looked like Chris Hope would intercept it, but Riley Cooper got in front to make the 37 yard catch, leading to an Eagles touchdown three plays later.
 
The Dolphins tried to make that play work in Week 10, but this time the Titans were able to defend it. Early in the game, with Chad Pennington and Chad Henne injured, Miami opted for five straight wildcat plays before bringing in Tyler Thigpen. To open, Ronnie Brown pitched to Ricky Williams who gave to Brandon Marshall who took a shot deep to Patrick Cobbs. The ball traveled far enough, but the four Titans around Cobbs prevented him from making the catch.
 
Finally, in Week 15, the Cowboys were up by six in the second quarter against the Redskins, and went to the same well that the Chiefs and Eagles had before … and found the same result. This time, Tashard Choice began as the quarterback and got the ball to Felix Jones, who then fed Jon Kitna. What made this play unique was that the Redskins realized Miles Austin was the target and had good coverage on him. Having to go to another option, Kitna found Jones streaking down the sideline (after his role in setting up the pass) for a 32 yard catch that led to a Cowboys score.
 

Closing Thoughts

While the sample size here is very small, it shows us that the results these kind of “trick” plays can have as part of a larger package. Flashing the ability to run the wildcat forces defenses to spend some time during their week preparing for it on top of everything else they might normally see from an opponent. More to that point, a team that shows willingness to pass from the wildcat adds even more pressure and ups the chances of success from the formation.
 
If anything, it provides a handful of plays to remind many of us why we love football: because anything can happen … including a double reverse followed by a long touchdown pass, just like you may have pulled off on the playground that one day in your childhood.
 
Check in again next time as we throw in some rankings of the top wildcat players and teams that we saw in 2010.
 
 
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed too: @ProFootbalFocus
 
 

  • dangmalzone

    The reverse pass from Pennington to Cobbs out of the Wildcat against Houston in 2008 was a thing of beauty.