Jets have to prepare to defend Wildcat vs. Bills
It's finally time for the Jets to unveil the Tim Tebow Wildcat offense they've kept shrouded in secrecy since the day they acquired him in March. It no doubt will be a huge focus of attention, but not the only Wildcat offense in this regular-season opener against AFC East rival Buffalo Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
The Bills run their own version of the unique offense, in which a running back or wide receiver -- or even the backup quarterback, in the Jets' case -- takes the snap (either under center or in the shotgun) and can run, pitch or pass. And although the attention surrounding the Bills' Wildcat is a mere flyspeck compared to the national attention devoted to Tebow's version, the Bills might provide just as many wrinkles.
In fact, the Bills actually might have the Wildcat advantage in this matchup. Consider: In last year's regular-season game against Tebow's Broncos, the Bills demolished Denver, 40-14, in a Week 16 game. Tebow was held to 34 rushing yards on 10 carries and threw three interceptions. Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, has a 5-1 record against Buffalo, so the Jets haven't needed the Wildcat against their divisional foes.
So don't be surprised if the Bills' use of the offense becomes a major factor. The Jets certainly are preparing to see a healthy dose of it, especially with quarterbacks coach David Lee considered the architect of the offense. It was Lee who taught former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, now the Jets' offensive coordinator, how to use the Wildcat in Miami.
"You have to be disciplined when you play against that Wildcat offense," Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "Everything has to click on defense. You have to be disciplined, stay in your gap, make sure you're where you're supposed to be. If you're not, anything can happen."
Revis found that out firsthand when he faced Tebow in Denver last season. The Jets contained him for most of the game, but Tebow led the Broncos on a 95-yard drive in the final minutes of a 17-13 Denver victory.
"We played great for 58 minutes, and in those last two minutes, we didn't have the discipline we needed against him," Revis said. "It has to be all the time."
The Jets will see a familiar face running the Bills' Wildcat. Brad Smith, a former college quarterback who ran a number of Wildcat plays during his days with the Jets, leads Buffalo's version. Smith, who joined the Bills as a free agent last season, is healthy after recovering from a groin strain in the preseason.
Like Tebow and the rest of the Jets' organization, Smith is staying close to the vest as far as revealing any tactics about what he might do. The Bills declined to make Smith available for an interview this past week, citing competitive issues because of Sunday's game. Smith did speak to Buffalo reporters on Friday but revealed little of what his role might be.
"It's exciting knowing they have an offensive coordinator and quarterback who've done [the Wildcat]," Smith said. "It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out."
Like the Jets, the Bills will attempt to use the element of surprise in terms of what they'll do with the formation. They can line up Smith at quarterback and have regular quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick split out as a wide receiver, or keep Fitzpatrick off the field entirely. They've also used running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to line up under center and take the snap.
The options once the ball is snapped are fairly straightforward. The Wildcat quarterback can run to his left or right and, based on what he sees from the defense, either run upfield if there is an open gap or pitch the ball to a running back who is keeping pace with the quarterback. The quarterback also can decide to throw the ball; indeed, some Wildcat quarterbacks will throw a conventional dropback pass from the pocket.
The challenge for the defense is to occupy the various lanes -- or gaps -- and be properly spaced apart so there is no large gap that offers the runner a chance to shoot through. In most cases, the inside defenders -- inside linebackers and tackles -- pursue the inside runner while the outside linebackers and defensive backs pursue the player to whom the ball is pitched.
"If one guy is out of place, that can result in a 20-yard gain, or it can be a touchdown," Jets defensive end Mo Wilkerson said. "You never know what can happen because you can run so many things out of the Wildcat. You have to be prepared for everything, because one guy not doing his assignment correctly can lead to a big play."
Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin, who played for the Bills -- although not with Smith -- said gap control is one of the keys to containing the Wildcat.
"Gap control is part of it, but you have to flow to the football, too," he said. "What you want from an offensive perspective is to get the ball into space. Defensively, you have to have an edge, and then flow to the football. Once you stop the runner from going laterally, he's going to run north-south, so you need guys going to the ball at that point."
Sealing the edge is a critical component. In Tebow's winning 20-yard touchdown run against the Jets last season, for instance, Jets safety Eric Smith was supposed to set the right edge of the defense, but Tebow got around him and raced into the end zone.
And then there's the pass defense. Because so many Wildcat plays are runs, defenses often can get lulled into complacency and then be victimized by a pass.
"If the ball is thrown, you've got to be ready to cover," Revis said. "As a pass defense, you don't want to get locked into the run. You can get so hypnotized with defending the run that they can do a fake and throw it over your head. That's where the discipline comes in. You have to stay awake."
The good news for the Jets is that Tebow's presence on their own team now makes them better prepared to face a Wildcat offense.
"I think it's helped us, because otherwise, you have to manufacture [practice] reps against the scout teams, and you're not going to get the best look," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "Now we've been running it in training camp, so you're running good against good . So it gives you a much better look. Having a guy like Tim here has been tremendous for us in preparation."
They're about to find out just how good that preparation was.