Taming the Wildcat

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All week leading to their playoff matchup with the Miami Dolphins, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan kept his charges on the practice field well after the final horn sounded.

Facing Miami's deceptive Wildcat offense this Sunday at Dolphin Stadium definitely calls for a few extra study sessions.

The Dolphins (11-5) have seen tremendous success this year operating their Wildcat attack, which was a large reason why they were able to rebound from a 1-15 campaign in 2007 and shockingly seize the AFC East title.

The formation calls for running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to occupy a backfield absent of quarterback Chad Pennington. A direct-snap to one of the runners then opens up a variety of options, resulting in a pass, handoff or rush attempt.

And, it has only improved throughout the season.

"They have expanded that package," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "They've grown it. It looks more and more like the complete package. They run every one of their runs off of it. They run a number of different passes off it, expanded the gadget plays off of it."

Many teams have been confounded by the Wildcat – that is, except the Ravens.

In a Week 7 battle between these two opponents, Baltimore caged the Wildcat, as the Dolphins ran out of it five times, mustering gains of -1, 5, 0, -3 and 3 yards en route to a 27-13 Ravens win. The longest chunk came on a 4-yard attempt from Williams.

The Ravens found success by simply staying true to their assignments, maintaining gaps to force ballcarriers to run east and west while keeping containment on the edges.

And of course, defenders could not bite on the multiple fakes each play presents.

Could Miami be even more unpredictable this weekend?

"We'll see," said Ryan. "They've got 11 guys out there, so however they can figure it, unless they put more footballs out there. It's a good offense, it really is. It really makes you prepare. They're doing it out of multiple personnel groupings and things like that. Absolutely, we're going to be prepared for it."

A major risk with the Wildcat offense is that it leaves the regular quarterback vulnerable, as Miami splits Pennington split out as a receiver. On several occasions, Baltimore cornerback Frank Walker jammed Pennington hard at the line of scrimmage.

The Ravens have been productive with their own version of the Wildcat, though.

Playfully deemed the "Suggs Package," after linebacker Terrell Suggs made comments earlier this season that suggested quarterback Troy Smith should see more playing time, Baltimore's formation has Smith under center and Joe Flacco split wide.

At different times throughout the year, the Ravens have had Smith run the option, hand the ball off and even throw a 43-yard bomb to Flacco.

Just last week in a 27-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Smith pitched across the field to Flacco, who went right back to a wide-open Smith. Smith then weaved 36 yards into Jaguars territory to set up a game-sealing field goal from Matt Stover.

"We feel like it adds to our game and gives us a chance to do a lot more things," Flacco said. "Troy does a great job of running the ball and catching the ball and throwing the ball – especially throwing the ball when he's put in there for so few plays during games. It's not easy to do, and he's done a great job of doing it."

Which is what makes the Ravens' version different from Miami's.

Baltimore loves the fact that it can place two NFL quarterbacks in action at the same time.

But what Smith has shown with his arm – he even connected with tight end Todd Heap for a 14-yard touchdown during a Week 10 matchup in Houston – Brown might be able to match.

When the Dolphins debuted the Wildcat, it shocked the New England Patriots on Sept. 21, a 38-13 Miami win where Brown rushed for four scores and passed for another.

"Right now it makes it difficult because their quarterback [for the Wildcat formation] happens to be an All-Pro running back," Ryan explained. "He runs through tackles and everything else. They do a nice job it.

"If I was just watching the game as a fan, I'd appreciate them. But, we see all kinds of stuff with our offense, too, so I think we're prepared for it."

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