The Dude Abides: Week 5 spotlight on the Wild Horses formation

My intention this week was to look at Robert Ayers and Jabar Gaffney, but as sometimes happens, things get in the way.  In this case, it was a pee wee football championship (no, it wasn't a Raider game).  So I scrapped the idea of Ayers and Gaffney and settled on putting the spotlight on the mutant formation that is the Wild Horses.  

Let me first say there have been a few other posts here at MHR about the Wild Horses formation, namely this excellent post by MHR member Flunkie and another by Vortex7 here.  And as our own Ted Barlett said in this post from August 2009, there is nothing particularly innovative about the Wild Cat formation.   However, it's worth examining the first drive because it shows you the kind of coach McDaniels is and the potential for the Wild Horses in future games.

As has been pointed numerous times already, the history and evolution of the Wild Cat goes back to high school and college football.  If you are interested in the history of the Wild Cat, you can go here.  I won't beat a wild horse. However, it's worth mentioning that, contrary to what you may have read, the unbalanced nature of the Wild Cat/Wild Horses and the direct snap to the running back does force a true 11 on 11 running play versus the standard 10 on 11 running play with the QB under center.   The Cornerback simply can't afford to ignore the QB lined up at Wide Receiver on the off-chance that the running back would attempt to pass the ball to him on the outside.  And as Kyle Orton alluded to earlier in the week, he will catch the ball if they throw it out there.

It's also worth repeating that the Wild Horses/Wild Cat accomplished three things that I am absolutely convinced that Josh McDaniels wanted to do to New England in Week 5:

  • Force the defense into a base formation 
  • Establish tempo
  • Confuse the defense

He was successful at all three.  Let's take a look at the 8 first drive plays in which Denver ran the Wild Horses against New England.

Play #1
The Broncos come out in the Wild Horses in a unbalanced formation, overloading the right side of the ball with Marshall, Gaffney, and Graham.  Scheffler is lined up off left tackle and Orton is split wide left.  It's clear the Patriots are confused.  Even though they are lined up in a 4-3,  they are tentative already and in the defensive backfield they are trying to figure out what the hell is going on.  Their corners are playing off about 8 yards and the safeties and linebackers are "thinking."

Orton motions right slightly pre-snap.   Knowshon Moreno takes the snap, the left guard pulls right and blocks for Moreno in the middle of the play.  The play develops quickly and Moreno gets about 11 yards off the right side of the line.

Play #2
The Broncos show the Wild Horses again, except this time, the formation is overloaded on the left side, with Marshall, Orton, and Graham on the left side of the formation, while Royal and Scheffler are on the right side of the formation.  The Pats counter with their 4-3, but they move the outside backers to the line of scrimmage, and instead of a Cover-2, they bring a safety down to the box.  It appears they are preparing for the run at this point.

Orton motions under center pre-snap and the Patroits immediately shift at the line into a tighter formation, while the safety rushes back into Cover 2 again. Orton takes the snap, drops back, and delivers a crisp pass to the outside for 2 yards.

Play #3
After a traditional play with Orton under center, Denver goes back to the Wild Horses.  At first, Denver overloads the left side with Orton, Gaffney, Graham, and Scheffler, while Royal is the lone receiver split to the right.  However, Orton quickly motions to the right of the formation.  The Patriots counter with 5 men at the line of scrimmage and they bring the safety in the box.  The right CB also gets close to the box, so the look the Pats are giving looks essentially like a 5-4, with a safety deep and the left CB about 8 yards off the line of scrimmage, but cheating.  Talk about stacking the line of scrimmage.

Upon the snap, Scheffler pulls across the middle of the formation to kick out any defenders in the hole, of which there are two.  He does an excellent job, and Moreno is able to get 5 yards right up the gut.

It should be noted, however, that the Pats are now starting to adjust by stacking the line of scrimmage for a run.

Play #4
The formation starts out again in a Wild Horses hybrid.  Orton is split right with Graham lined up right off of Ryan Harris.  Split left are Royal, Gaffney,  and Scheffler.  Orton motions back under center pre-snap.  The Patriots counter by stacking the line of scrimmage again with 5 defenders and brining the safety into the box, so it's a Cover-1 look with two linebackers.  As Orton motions, the safety follows him for a moment, but then runs quickly back to give a Cover 2 look. Also, the Pats defensive line shifts slightly to the weak side and the left middle linebacker moves outside to become a left end.  So now the Broncos are seeing 6 men at the line of scrimmage with 1 MLB, 2 corners playing 8 yards off the ball and 2 deep safeties.

Orton with a quick out route to Sheffler, who turns the play into a big gain.  It's hard to tell, but I believe the shift to the left by the Patriots pre-snap could have influenced Orton to look for Scheffler on the other side.

Play # 5
This time, they line Orton wide left ,with Marshall and Graham to his inside.  Split right are Gaffney and Royal.  Orton motions to the right, but just barely pre-snap.  The Pats counter with really a 5-2 look.  This time, they don't bring another safety in the box.

Moreno busts off another quick 5 yard gain up the middle.  I believe they motion Orton towards the play so that the Pats would think he might come back under center. 

Play #6
A very interesting formation.  Denver comes out with double slots, Scheffler on the left and Graham on the right, along with a receiver split out on each side (Gaffney on the left and Marshall on the right).  Orton is between Marshall and Graham.  The Patriots call a time out, since they appeared to be in more of a standard 4-3 formation.

Play #7
The Broncos come out from the timeout in a different formation, this time looking like more of a power running formation, but still unbalanced.  Sheffler is in a 3-point stance outside of Clady and Graham is lined up the same way outside of Ryan Harris.  Gaffney and Marshall are split wide right.  Orton starts wide right as well, but then motions all the way over to left side of the formation.   The Pats counter out of the timeout, determined to shut this down, putting 6 men at the line of scrimmage, with 2 middle linebacker and their right CB cheating to the line of scrimmage.  It has the appearance of a 6-3.

Sure enough, the 6th man rushes around the outside end (Marshall doesn't have the chance to get a hand on him) and helps to make the play.  Also, it doesn't help that Wiegman gets blown into the backfield by the tackle.  The play is stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage.

Play #8
Orton and the Broncos go back to a "normal" (non-Wild Horses) look and there is an incomplete pass.  They are forced to settle for a Field Goal attempt.

Overal Grade: 8,5 out of 10.  The Wild Horses was effective in several ways.  As Phil Simms noted in the broadcast, the Broncos were really dictating tempo to the Patriots on this drive and causing the defenders to "think" too much about what was coming at them.  Only after a wise Belichick time out (another benefit of this formation is that it caused the Pats to burn one) were the Patriots able to call a defense that was aggressively attacking.  A few other notes:

  • Adding to the confusion was the rotation of Orton motioning back under center.  They Pats did a good job changing their defense to adjust, but it was clear they were having to think instead of react. 
  • Of of the total Wild Horses plays on the first drive, none of them resembled one another, adding to the confusion.
  • The tempo and pace created be the formation felt almost like a no-huddle, which added to the defense's confusion during the drive.
  • The cornerbacks did not ignore Orton and stayed out on the island with him when he was split wide.
  • The way to counter this formation is to bring more guys in the box, but have the package who can adjust back to Cover-2 if Orton motions back under center.

Something tells me we haven't see the last of this formation.  With the multiple formations and personnel packages he mixed in on this Wild Horses package, it's hard for me to believe that they will go to waste.  Options would include a Moreno hand-off to Marshall on a sweep, multiple back sets with Buckhalter and Moreno (Miami style), and (I am guaranteeing this) running back passes to a slot TE on the seam.  I wouldn't even be surprised to see some sort of option play.  Even more interesting would be for McDaniels to try and find a way to get the Defense to commit to a Cover 1 defense as the ball is snapped at the same time Orton is motioning back to the middle of the formation, then giving the ball to Orton for a pass.  This would leave only one safety deep and might lead to some deep success.  If I'm wrong, well then I'll just be like the hundreds of thousands of Raider fans each week that think they are just a few players away from an AFC title.

Next week, I promise to go back to evaluating players, not formations.  Go Broncos!!!

Originally posted at MHR

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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