“I look at that offense kind of like the wildcat,” Perry Fewell has said about defending the read-option. “The wildcat took us by storm and then until you can see it, understand it; then you can defend it.”
You would think a defensive coordinator with 15 years of NFL coaching experience, not to mention someone that got their butt whooped by the read-option twice, would know better than to say something like he said above. But I suppose he’s not alone in this ridiculous, wrong assumption. Ask a defensive coordinator or defensive minded coach about how to stop the read option, they will almost always bring up how it’s just like The Wildcat; a passing phase that can easily be stopped once it’s seen enough times.
This has been part of the caveman-ish response to teams like the Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, and San Francisco 49ers have a tremendous amount of success running it in 2012. Even the Dolphins were dabbling in it by seasons’ end with Ryan Tannehill. The read-option has been dissed as unsafe for the quarterbacks, a gimmick, and a passing phase, just like 2009 Miami Dolphins taking the world by storm with the Wildcat formation.
The problem with comparing the read-option with the Wildcat, is that they are fundamentally different plays, that work completely independently of each other, with their own separate ways of doing things. Defensive coordinators comparing the read-option with the Wildcat are hurting no one but themselves when it comes to successfully defending it.
So, for those of you who don’t know the differences, I’ll explain it for you.
The Wildcat Formation
The Wildcat Formation is an off balanced set where a running back in the shotgun, typically with the quarterback split out wide, and a slot receiver or, as has become popular, a second running back is lined up in the deep slot. At the snap of the ball, the slot back will go in motion. The hope is that the the backfield motion causes confusion, as the defense won’t know if the ball is being handed off to.
In the Wildcat Formation, there are three base plays run out of it, as former Arkansas offensive coordinator explains below.
The Differences Between The Wildcat and the Read-Option
1.) There is no “read-option” in most variations of the Wildcat. Let’s take a brief refresher on what the read-option is.
In the read option, the quarterback is reading the defensive end in a 4-3, or the linebacker in a 3-4. If the quarterback reads the defensive end/OLB continuing his rush upfield to the quarterback, the quarterback hands it off to the running back. If the quarterback reads the defensive end/OLB crashing down the line of scrimmage to chase the running back, the quarterback has the option of keeping the ball for himself and running the football.
This right away gives the read-option a huge advantage over the Wildcat. The Wildcat is a set play call, that will be run regardless of how the defense is aligned, or how anyone of the defense plays the football. In most cases, the running back has no choices on whether or not to keep the football.
This, in turn, makes the read-option that much more dangerous. It forces a defense to play slow and have to think rather than react, whereas with the Wildcat, you can still be aggressive. Mainly because of our second bulletpoint.
2.) The lack of a consistent passing threat.
When a team lines up in a Wildcat set, and the quarterback is split out wide, 9 times out of 10, you know that it’s going to be a run coming, and that it’ll likely be going away from the quarterback.
Outside of some trickery like flea-flickers and halfback passes, the threat of the pass when lined up in a Wildcat set is basically non-existent. You can stack 8 in the box again the Wildcat, and as long as you play assignment football, you probably won’t get taken advantage of.
The reason why Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick were so successful run the read-option is because they were a legitimate threat to pass the ball. That’s what defensive coordinators like Fewell seem to be be misunderstanding; even if you “stop” the read-option, the thread off the play action pass off the read-option fake is still there.
If you over-commit and rush to stop the run, it exposes the back end of your defense. Scrape exchange is a great way of containing the read-option, until you take the play action passing game into account. It forces defenses to play honest football or they’ll get taken advantage of.
3.) Defenses Never Really “Stopped” The Wildcat
The Wildcat may not be as heavily in use as it was in 2008 and 2009, but the idea that teams “stopped” it is sort of silly.
It’s days as a offense that is used on a large amount of snaps are indeed probably over and done. But it’s not as though defensive coordinators eliminated it from football all together.
What defensive coordinators won’t admit is that most offensive coordinators weren’t looking to build an entire playbook around the Wildcat. For them, it was a wrinkle. Or it was an idealogy that simply didn’t fit their scheme, as Kyle Shanahan explains in this clip from 2009.
The Dolphins were the only team that tried to build an entire offense around the Wildcat, and it just didn’t work. Part of the problem was that they had trouble moving the ball through more conventional means; in 2009, quarterback Chad Pennington’s skillset began to decline, and Chad Henne was solid but unable to get the regular offense going. The Dolphins didn’t have that much talent at receiver either. So teams could, essentially, focus completely on stopping the run game. Trying to incorporate what second round pick Pat White did at West Virginia bombed. And even then, Ricky Williams still rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns and Ronnie Brown rushed for 648 yards and 8 touchdowns.
By 2010, the Dolphins had improved their receiving core with the addition of Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess and Brian Hartline. Ricky Williams was 33 years old and near the end of the line. Ronnie Brown had broken a his foot in 2009 and was still recovering.
The reason the Dolphins began to utilize the Wildcat less was because (at least on paper), they had a better football team, with more offensive talent, and that moving the ball in the air was more efficient than moving it on the ground.
D-coordinators didn’t stop the Wildcat. The one team that ran it with regularity grew and adapted their offense with time, while other teams weren’t quite as wild about it and didn’t commit to it.
That’s what Kyle Shanahan says in that clip; if you’re to run the Wildcat, you need to commit to it. You can’t do it halfway. The other teams besides Miami that attempted to run it never committed to it. Miami committed to it until they got better.
The league didn’t stop the Wildcat. It just went into hibernation.
The approach defensive coordinators have taken to defending the read-option this offseason only assures me that it’ll continue to be successful going forward. It’s pretty clear that the read-option and Pistol formation have frustrated defensive coordinators. But rather than taking a sound, logical approach, they’re frustration is bubbling over into a silly mentality that this is all a gimmick. It’s denial at it’s best and downright ignorant at it’s worse.
The best way to stop the read-option is to stop pretending it’s a wacky gimmick and start treating it like any other offensive concept. The more d-coordinators like Perry Fewell pretend it’s “just like the Wildcat”, the more they’ll end up looking like dummies when quarterbacks combine for 421 passing yards and 161 rushing yards against them.