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Defenses will decide if Wildcat is here to stay or just a fad

MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins realize they have built NFL buzz over the Wildcat offense. But rather than waste time fretting over how NFL defenses will respond in the 2009 season, the Dolphins have been busy developing more magic.

"Stay tuned," Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning says.

We have. The league has.

Expect the Wildcat -- direct, shotgun snaps to running backs or receivers in often a variation of the old Wing-T offense -- to offer league-wide twists led by the Dolphins. When Miami recently drafted West Virginia quarterback Pat White, a passer who is more mobile and more athletic and a better runner than the typical NFL quarterback, it became clear that the Dolphins will not stand still in this offense.

In fact, the Dolphins say they have a "Pat Package."

All expect a cagier Wildcat.

Several NFL teams will adopt their version of the offense. No team, including the Dolphins, will use it as a primary offense. But a sprinkle can provide glitter. Expectations are that the Philadelphia Eagles, with new quarterback Michael Vick, can lift the Wildcat to stirring heights.

Every NFL defensive coordinator spent portions of the offseason dissecting how to combat this offense.

"I wouldn't be surprised if every team takes a chance on using it in some way this season," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We've studied ourselves. We don't think we've done all we can do with it. I know the Ravens didn't seem to have much trouble dealing with us in it last year in the playoffs. I think we've done a good job on defense with it when we've seen it because our defense sees it a lot in practice."

With so many college teams running the spread offense and variations of the Wildcat, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said it is natural that the NFL has begun to employ these principles. That is where NFL players come from, said LeBeau, and the best pro teams will do whatever the talent they draft does best.

"The Wildcat is basically a formation from the '30s," said LeBeau, who reaches age 72 next week. "The old 49ers had it. I used to watch John Brodie and some of those guys run it. In pro football, you use what you have. We are getting versatile players. On the horizon is the kid from Ohio State at quarterback (Terrelle Pryor) and Florida has Tim Tebow coming in here soon. These guys are 6-5 and run 4.4. Is that fair for a defense? So, not only are the other skilled players good for the Wildcat but some of the quarterbacks are now beginning to be perfectly made for it.

"I think we have to stop it as a defense the same way you stop any good offense: You designate your defense to keep a certain player from beating you. Going after the passer and the ball in the backfield is always my aim. You always get after the ball behind the line of scrimmage and you really have to do that against the Wildcat."

Several NFL defensive coaches said that they will emphasize assignment-oriented football against the Wildcat much like they would in defending against an option offense. This means more discipline on defense. More recognition. And, certainly, more precise tackling.

It also means that increased speed at linebacker and along the defensive line are traits that NFL defenses have pursued with renewed zeal.

Some NFL coaches believe the Wildcat is simply a gimmick.

A nuisance more than a mainstay.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Jim Bates said that kind of thinking will get teams beat this season.

"We're going to play a lot of bump coverage and mix things a lot here with our defense," Bates said. "But if you don't look at this offense and see how what you are doing is affected, you've got a full-scale problem. I think of it as option football and something that makes you as a defense balance up. They've got their wrinkles. We've got some wrinkles that we hope answer it peppered into the mix."

Look for NFL defenses to attack this scheme with more sure-footed pressure in hopes of smothering the Wildcat before it gobbles them up.

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