Vikings

I Watched Every Vikings Wildcat Snap, And This is What I Saw

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

Let me get it out there right away: The Wildcat is working better than you think.

The Minnesota Vikings had teased the Wildcat Formation in six games this season, sprinkling it into their offense for no more than two plays in each of those half-dozen games. Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, however, they went to the direct-snap formation five times, giving us a much better sample size for the team’s Wildcat usage this season.

Reaction to this novel concept, imported along with new offensive line coach Tony Sparano, has been mixed.


The reason for the disdain is understandable. The Wildcat was considered a one-hit wonder after Sparano instituted it successfully for a year in Miami before the league caught on in 2008. It also is essentially a dead sell for a run – at least it was until Minnesota got tricky last Sunday. The Vikings passed for the first time out of the Wildcat as Cordarrelle Patterson took the ball from Jerick McKinnon on a sweep and pitched it to Sam Bradford, who fired to an open Adam Thielen, drawing a defensive pass interference call. It was Minnesota’s biggest gain out of the formation this year.

But the Vikings haven’t been without success running the football from the formation. Over the course of the season, Minnesota has run from the Wildcat 13 times for 66 yards, or 5.2 yards per carry. That is exactly double the 2.6 yards per carry the Vikings have accomplished in every other rushing attempt, not to mention better than the team’s 4.7 yards per play throughout the season. It would also be the second-best rushing average in the league, just a tick behind Buffalo (5.3).

every-wildcat-play

Minnesota has been selective when using the formation this season, which perhaps has led to its success. With the exception of a fourth quarter attempt against Green Bay, the Vikings have limited their use of the Wildcat to the first three quarters and have only called the play in 1st-and-10 or 2nd-and-medium situations – plays in which neither the drive, nor the game, are hanging in the balance and the down and distance are not dictating the play call.

The Vikings tried a similar gimmick several years ago with the athletic Joe Webb, but had very little success, ostensibly because he was only on the field for a handful of plays per game and defenses knew to focus on him. With the current Wildcat setup, Minnesota uses athletes that are regularly part of the offense to create diversions and misdirections that might confuse the defense. “I’m a fan of anything that gives the defense problems and ends up being productive,” said former offensive coordinator Norv Turner before he resigned. Turner, an old school coach, embraced the modern formation, as has head coach Mike Zimmer, an old school coach in his own right.

“I know part of it is Coach Zimmer’s input,” Turner said. “He knows certain things that are headaches to prepare for, so we’re trying to do those things, too.”

Patterson is one of the big headaches presented to defenses in Minnesota’s Wildcat. In four of the five attempts on Sunday, he motioned before the play and was offered the ball on a fake handoff. Only twice this season has Patterson actually received the ball – once was a loss and the other time was a lateral to Bradford – but Patterson’s presence is useful nonetheless. Watch No. 90 Jason Pierre-Paul in the clip below hesitate for a split second on the fake to Patterson, which frees up McKinnon for a 7-yard gain.

McKinnon has received the majority of carries in the Wildcat, all on keepers. Seven out of the 14 Wildcat snaps he has run the football for 34 yards and a 4.9-yard average – two full yards better than his yards per carry for the season (2.9).

McKinnon only has one negative play out of the Wildcat this year. It came in the Arizona game because T.J. Clemmings missed a block and then fell on McKinnon as he tried to recover. If you eliminate that mishap, his average goes over 6.0.

While McKinnon’s runs are essentially the control group, the Vikings have done some more creative things with Matt Asiata quarterbacking the play. On Sunday, the Vikings used an unbalanced line with three offensive linemen left of the center – Jeremiah Sirles swinging from right to left for the play – that resulted in Asiata rumbling for nine yards.

Against Detroit, Asiata pitched the ball to Stefon Diggs on an end-around that went for 12 yards. Also, a great sell by Sirles, who loops around to block on the right side and brings defensive end Anthony Zettel (No. 69) with him, giving Diggs a bunch of real estate.

Asiata has been utilized second most in the Wildcat with three totes for 6.3 yards per carry. Diggs, Patterson and Adrian Peterson each have one attempt. If you include the penalty yardage from Bradford’s pass against Arizona, that totals seven non-McKinnon plays from the Wildcat that have gone for 61 yards, or 8.7 yards per play. That’s fantastic.

The Vikings were very patient to unveil their Wildcat wrinkles, waiting until Week 9 to get the ball to Diggs and waiting until Week 11 to throw it for the first time. “We felt like if we could throw in a wrinkle in there and get a pass, it would probably catch them off guard,” Bradford said Sunday. The Vikings have also yet to allow McKinnon to pass the football, something he’s surely capable of from his Georgia Southern days.

In Seattle over the weekend, Russell Wilson scored a receiving touchdown from Doug Baldwin, perhaps begging the question: Could Bradford ever run a route? Early betting lines on this hypothetical scenario would lean ‘No’ after seeing how Bradford handled the jam at the line of scrimmage on Sunday.

bradford-wildcat-smoked

Jokes aside, the Vikings have leveraged the Wildcat into 6.8 yards per play when they’ve utilized it. It has been a great change-up to a pretty dismal running game and should be accepted rather than ridiculed. “I just felt like when we started we wanted to be as innovative and do things as best we could,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “I know sometimes it makes defenses uneasy because of all the different things because they don’t see it very much.”

It’s probably not something the Vikings will ever use much more than they did in the Arizona game, but it gives opponents something new for which to game plan and provides the occasional element of surprise, which is fun; and football should be fun. Right?

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