Cardinals’ Wildcat formation has ‘been a blessing in disguise’

Dec 22, 2016, 9:29 AM | Updated: 5:37 pm
Arizona Cardinals running back Kerwynn Williams (33) runs a direct snap for a touchdown against the...
Arizona Cardinals running back Kerwynn Williams (33) runs a direct snap for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints for during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — It is known as the “Wildcat” everywhere but Arizona State University, and lately, it has been one of the Arizona Cardinals’ most effective plays.

It debuted in Atlanta, with running back Kerwynn Williams lined up in the shotgun and fellow back David Johnson next to him. The first time, he took the snap and handed it to Johnson, who picked up 16 yards. The next time Williams was in the formation, he kept the ball and ran for 11 yards, though the play was called back due a to a holding penalty.

The Cardinals have occasionally turned to the play since then — with varying degrees of success — including a 49-yard touchdown from from Williams on the opening drive against the Saints last weekend.

In a way, the coaches stumbled upon the play, using it only after Williams ran it well on the scout team when they were preparing for other teams’ Wildcat formations.

“I was like, ‘let’s do it,’ and so far it’s been good for us,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “A lot of times he’s just out there making people miss. Even when guys are unblocked he’s been phenomenal that way. He does the same thing at practice.

“It’s been a blessing in disguise.”

Williams has always shown to be an adept runner. In 2014 he posted the Cardinals’ first 100-yard rushing effort — in Week 14 — and averaged 4.85 yards per carry in across that season and 2015. This year, with only six rushing attempts, he has notched 97 yards, which is the second-most on the team.

But getting him on the field has been challenging, especially when you consider the team has a three-down Pro Bowl runner in Johnson. If Williams is getting the reps at running back then Johnson is not, and the Cardinals are worse off when Johnson is not on the field.

Lining Williams up at quarterback with Johnson next to him solves that problem, while creating others for the opposing defense.

“You have two people to take account of,” Williams said. “When it’s just a regular quarterback back there handing off the ball, most of the time they’re not going to run with it. There’s not a lot of quarterbacks that run with the ball. When you have that added affect on somebody, being able to run that ball also. I think it adds pressure onto the defense.”

Think of it like the zone-read plays many college teams are using. The quarterback, in this case Williams, takes the snap and sees what the defense is doing. At that point, he makes the decision of whether or not to give the ball to Johnson or pull it back and keep it himself.

“If they bring an extra guy out there or they’re blitzing from that side, you know, it makes it fairly easy,” he said. “Or if it’s just a defensive end, it’s really just paying attention to your tape and seeing what the guys are giving you.”

If Williams makes the right read, the Cardinals should pick up some yards.

“I don’t think it’s been stopped yet with me and Kerwynn,” Johnson said. “He knows exactly when to keep it, how to run the ball. Even when he keeps it, he’s a great running back and his ability to break tackles and spring long runs like he did.”

The Cardinals are not the first team to use the Wildcat and they certainly will not be the last. It came back to prominence back in the 2008 season, when the Miami Dolphins ran with Ronnie Brown out of the formation in a big win over the New England Patriots.

Since then, teams have turned to it because, simply, it tends to work.

“The guy that’s in the backfield, whether it’s a running back, a receiver, the extra guy in the backfield, he creates an extra gap that defensively you have to defend,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “The quarterback goes out, he takes one out of the box. The guy that’s in, catching them in the backfield, even though he’s not a guy that throws it, he creates extra gaps. So you have to be aware of the box structure that you’re playing, defensively, so that you have enough guys to fit all the gaps that could happen, whether they’re running gap-scheme plays or traditional zone-read plays.”

Bettcher likened it to what the Seattle Seahawks do with Russell Wilson, who while an excellent passer, runs similar plays, and when you look at it that way the concept makes plenty of sense.

The mobile Wilson is one of the most difficult quarterbacks to prepare for and stop because there are so many different ways he can hurt you.

One thing that Wilson and most college QBs do that Williams not done with the play is throw a pass, and though Goodwin said he is capable of doing so, the player said the team doesn’t really need him to.

“I wouldn’t be against it, if that was an added wrinkle, of course I feel like I could throw the ball,” he said. “But I feel like Carson’s doing a great job, there’s no need for me to throw the ball.”

Williams throwing the ball would be the next stage in the evolution of the play, and Goodwin indicated that might be something they work on in the offseason. But so far, even without the proven threat of the pass, defenses have still struggled to slow the play.

“Really, a lot of teams don’t really prepare for it, especially for us because they’ve never seen it from us before,” Goodwin said, adding he thinks the team ran it once last season and it was not very good. “I just think from the standpoint of you don’t know what you’re going to get because every week we’ve changed it up as far as formation, where people are. Last week, now David was out in the formation along with Kerwynn.

“So you don’t know what you’re getting, so it’s just kind of that deception of, ‘what do I do defensively?'”

It’s not the Cardinals’ main play, of course, but the Wildcat has quickly become a go-to option. And until it is stopped, you can expect to continue seeing it.

Because if the goal is to put pressure on the defense, then mission accomplished.

“Literally pick their poison because like you’ve seen with Kerwynn, he’s able to spring a good run, and I think it really confuses (them), especially the linebackers,” Johnson said. “That’s what it is, the secondary, the linebackers, who are they going to go towards, me or are they going to go towards Kerwynn? And Kerwynn’s good at reading that out.”

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