To tame the Wildcat and defeat the Dolphins (2-3) to end a seven-game road losing streak, the Baltimore Ravens (2-3) and their top-ranked defense will need to utilize discipline and concentration against an offense steeped in creating mass confusion and exploiting the talents of physical running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
It’s an innovative strategy that has allowed the Dolphins to win two of their past three games.
"It’s a body blow for a coach because you spend a lot of time, and you have to prepare for it because it’s a legitimate thing," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. ‘It’s not something they just ran once. Ever since they broke it out, they’ve been running it every week and they keep adding on to it. So, it’s a legitimate thing.
"I’m definitely concerned with that. It could be [Larry] Csonka, [Jim] Kiick and [Mercury] Morris back there, and they’ve got their own version of it right now. Hey, we’ll stand by how we play."
The Wildcat lines up Brown in a shotgun formation as quarterback Chad Pennington and Williams set up outside at wide receiver. Then, Brown can run the football himself, hand it off to Williams or throw a pass.
The New England Patriots had no answers for the unusual gambit in a 38-13 victory as Brown finished with four touchdown runs and a touchdown pass.
In a 17-10 win over the San Diego Chargers, Brown gained 49 of his 125 yards out of the formation as well as scoring the game-winning touchdown.
And in a 29-28 loss to the Houston Texans last week, the Dolphins began the game with a 53-yard touchdown pass from Pennington to running back Patrick Cobbs. Pennington got the football flipped to him after a snap to Brown and a handoff to Williams.
The Dolphins definitely have the Ravens’ attention.
"It’s been highly successful up to this point, so it’s definitely going to change some things and we definitely have to look at some things," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Ronnie Brown, he’s looking like the best running back in football right now, so it’s definitely got our eyeballs raised."
The man behind the Wildcat is Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee, who learned it when he was the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator from former high school coach Gus Malzahn. It was called the Wild Hog and it took advantage of the abilities of first-round running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Brown has reprised McFadden’s role with Williams acting as Jones.
It took some convincing from Lee to get coach Tony Sparano to install the Wildcat.
In the past three games, the Dolphins have scored six touchdowns out of the single-wing formation.
Brown has rushed for 336 yards and scored seven touchdowns while Williams has 235 yards and a score.
Plus, Pennington has been sharp out of conventional formations with 68.6 percent accuracy or 1,101 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions for a 98.8 rating.
"It’s the flavor of the month," Ravens defensive end Marques Douglas said. "Everybody is excited about it, but you still gotta play football. We don’t disrespect anybody, but we’re confident in what we can do."
"What it does is it changes the numbers for the defense," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "So, if you’ve got to cover down on all those receivers, whether it’s a quarterback or not, somebody’s got to cover them. That takes one more man out of the box. If a quarterback is in there handing off to a back, that’s one more run defender in a box.
"If you direct-snap to a running back, and the quarterback is out there, he takes somebody with him. That’s one less guy you’ve got to block. The math part of it is a big part of it. You get enamored by what you see in front of you, and you’ve got to defend a very good running game against two really, really good running backs. All of a sudden, someone’s running behind you."
The Dolphins also use Pennington as a decoy and shift rookie left tackle Jake Long to the right side with Williams and Cobbs lining up as wing backs.
The Wildcat doesn’t always work, though. Against the Texans, other than Pennington’s flashy touchdown, the Wildcat generated no more than four yards the five other times it was used.
"Sometimes, teams freak out and don’t know what to do against it," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We’ll be ready."
For the Ravens, who haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in a league-high 24 consecutive games, it all comes back to a tried-and-true principle: find the football, hit the man holding the football.
"It’s still football," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "There’s one football on the field, there’s only one person that’s going to touch the football. Whe ther it’s Brown back there catching the ball or him trying to hand it off to Ricky, it’s still football.
"If you get caught up in all that, the way we play defense, it doesn’t matter. All we’ve got to find is the football. That’s the bottom line. I just think they’re doing some creative things to try to and really disguise and trick people, but the bottom line is to just find the football."
Yet, the even bigger bottom line for the Ravens is trying to even their record and halt a three-game losing streak following last week’s 31-3 blowout against the Indianapolis Colts. Failing to shut down the Wildcat could be extremely detrimental to the Ravens’ cause.
"We’re down right now, and last week was definitely a wakeup call," Suggs said. "Getting lit up like that, that’s on the defense. We’re definitely going to be dangerous. We know this is our season right here, so it’s got to be taken like this could make or break our season.
"This is the game. This is it. You lose this one, it’s going to get guys starting to wither off and starting to jump off the bandwagon. So, we’re trying to keep everybody on."