Vikings hoping to tame the Wildcat

Chad Greenway (Chris McGrath/AP)

The Dolphins are responsible for making the Wildcat formation en vogue in the NFL and they might still be the most effective in using it. So how is one of the best run defenses preparing for it? The defenders explain.

The date was September 21, 2008. The New England Patriots were coming off the first 16-0 regular season in league history. They were hosting the Miami Dolphins and were woefully unprepared for what was coming. Miami broke out an option style long since removed from pro football called the Wildcat.

The result was unexpected and pronounced. Miami beat the defending AFC champs 38-13 and running back Ronnie Brown scored four touchdowns. The Wildcat became a staple of the Dolphins offense and got the notice of the rest of the NFL, which would quickly adopt versions of their own to the Wildcat theme.

As the Vikings prepare to face the innovators of the Wildcat for the first time since they re-introduced it to the NFL, Chad Greenway said that, unlike the Patriots and the other early victims of the formation, the Vikings have seen incarnations of the Wildcat already and will be prepared for it.

"I think it was a big deal," Greenway said. "When the Dolphins went to New England and got that win, it was because of the Wildcat and that's what made it legit. We've seen smatterings of it when we play other people. I don't think at any point has it hurt us. These are the guys that originally brought it back in. It will be interesting to play against them. They are a good a team, a playoff team from a few years ago, and I'm sure they want to get back."

The Dolphins have been able to maintain the success of the Wildcat primarily because they have a two-headed weapon in the backfield that has made success possible.

"They do it the best in the league," cornerback Lito Sheppard said. "I think that's why a lot of teams started copying it because they were so successful with it. You start with the guys they have running it – Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Those are two tough runners."

The Vikings said the proliferation of the Wildcat throughout the pro and college game has diminished some of its effectiveness. The element of surprise is no longer in play and defensive tackle Kevin Williams said that the Wildcat has lost much of its unique nature.

"It's almost like how (the University of) Florida ran plays with Tim Tebow at quarterback," Williams said. "We've seen it plenty of times. We know what to expect and we'll be ready for it Sunday."

As with offensive gimmicks, the Wildcat has become an element of game-planning that the Vikings will look at this week. The Dolphins don't always employ it – the Wildcat formation was used just three times in their season-opening win against Buffalo.

"It's another look that you have to prepare for," linebacker Ben Leber said. "Every team has a different personality and a different wrinkle on it here and there. They're known for starting it back up and, although they don't use it all the time, it's something you have to be prepared for."

Leber said the key to the Wildcat is not getting too caught up in changing the defense to address it. By and large, the Dolphins run out of the Wildcat and Leber said that the Vikings will likely address the formation the way they would an anticipated run play and not allow the positive aspects of the Wildcat to create big-gaining plays.

"It's all about trying to get teams out of position and run angles," Leber said. "That is what has made it so effective. It's easy to say, ‘They're going to run from that formation' and then they cross you up and get a big play. You can dwell too much on it."

The Vikings hope the Wildcat won't be a major part of the storyline Sunday. It has lost its novelty, but, against a team that was the innovator of the formation, the Vikings are expecting to see it – especially given their consistent success at stopping the run. The Wildcat remains a ace up the sleeve of the Miami offense, but, as Jared Allen points out, if the Vikings maintain their assignments, the Wildcat will be tamed and a non-factor Sunday.

"If you play your blocks right and everybody tackles who they're supposed to tackle, it shouldn't be a problem," Allen said. "I think people try to over-think it too much and get tied up with, ‘Oh, the quarterback doesn't have the ball.' Just like a quarterback, (the Wildcat snap recipient) is either going to hand it or he's going to run it or throw it. Nothing really changed. You've got to study your film and everybody's got to play assignment football. It's fundamental football. If you play your fundamentals right, you'll be alright."


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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