Scouting 101: The Single Wing in the NFL

The Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers have shaken up the NFL this season by installing Wildcat formations. This formation is based on the single wing, popular at the college level before World War II. How can this ancient offense revive the NFL?

The legitimacy of the single wing is up for debate in NFL circles. The players needed to run the offense vary from the normal NFL roster, but can this formation be introduced as a package to keep defenses honest? In the past 30 years we have seen little innovation on the offensive side of the ball, save the West Coast offense that was developed in the late '70s. On the defensive side of the ball there has been the 3-4 with Bill Parcells, the 46 under Buddy Ryan and the reinvention of the Cover-2 in Tampa Bay and now other franchises. How can an offensive coordinator combat the many wrinkles defensive coordinators are installing each week?

Offensive coordinators look each week for one thing: How to exploit matchups. While defense is about dictating what the offense can do and taking away play makers, running an offense is about trying to find matchups and weaknesses in the defense. If a team notices that a cornerback is likely to jump a comeback, they will install a double move corner route. If a team sees a weak-side linebacker who doesn't attack the run and keep his outside shoulder free, they will run more tosses. With so little innovation on the offensive side of the ball, defenses are becoming more dominant than ever before. Without a Tom Brady to Randy Moss style passing attack, there is not much an offense can do but hope for a weak link on defense. This is where the single wing can change things. Whether you are for or against the offense working in the NFL, it is certainly interesting to break down.

The single wing is based upon a running quarterback. In the NFL we are seeing running backs DeAngelo Williams and Ronnie Brown taking direct snaps in a shotgun formation, generally flanked by a fullback.

Here we see a standard single wing (wildcat) formation against a 4-3 defense. The defense is in a RIP (strong right) call due to the slot receiver and fullback being on the same side of the field. The strong call will go to the side of the ball which has the most potential ball carriers. In this case, the offense is unbalanced 3:2, as we do not count the quarterback.

The quarterback in this case would be a wide receiver or running back, preferably a player who can throw if need be. Teams are not willing to expose their starting quarterback to the punishment of running the ball and opt to split the quarterback out at wide receiver, or remove him altogether.

At the snap of the ball, the quarterback has three "options." He can run the ball himself, hand off to the receiver in motion or pass the ball to a receiver. A fourth option that is not shown would be running a trap with the fullback.

The right defensive end is circled here, as he is our "read." If the defensive end crashes hard to pursue the slot receiver, the quarterback will keep the ball himself for the run/pass option. If the end stays at home, the quarterback will hand the ball to the slot receiver in motion. This is a simple zone read.

The offensive line is blocking down in a zone fashion, stepping to their right (play side) and picking up the first defensive player. A key in this play is our tight end. He is responsible for creating a wall by blocking down on the left defensive end. This is the most important block for the zone read to function, as our slot receiver will cut up field either in the "4" hole (between the right guard and right tackle) or off tackle in the "8" hole.

NFL defenses have struggled to stop this play early in the season, which is confusing to some pundits. The single wing is effective for many reasons, the most prominent being the speed of the quarterback and his ability to run, pass or hand off the ball. These options make the offense unpredictable, and hard to stop as every defensive player must rely not on his assignment, but his instincts and vision. One false step can create an opening and six points for the offense.

Will the single wing find it's way back in to NFL play books? It is likely that we will see this package installed across the league, with many different interpretations and ideas, such as the fullback trap or speed option. It is finally an exciting time again in the NFL for offensive minds.

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