You might think the Patriots have caught a break, particularly in their ongoing efforts to figure out the Wildcat, with the season-ending injury to Ronnie Brown.
You'd be wrong.
The Dolphins indeed seem to have shelved the original Wildcat formation they debuted last season against the Patriots, the formation in which Brown took a shotgun snap with Williams lined up as a wide receiver:
In the Wildcat that Miami threw at the Patriots so successfully a year ago, Brown (23) took the snap with Williams (23) coming in motion as if to run a sweep. Brown either handed off to Williams or kept the ball himself with the option to run either left or right. If the Patriots overwhelmed the Dolphins at the line of scrimmage, Brown also could throw to a wide receiver down the field.
(The Dolphins also ran a Wildcat package with only a running back and a fullback in the backfield. The basic idea of the Wildcat is to make the defense account for the quarterback even during running plays, and that turns a 10-on-11 matchup into an 11-on-11 matchup.)
Without Brown, who was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago with a foot injury, the Dolphins have had little trouble running the Wildcat with Williams out of the backfield.
They also just come up with an even more dangerous package -- one featuring rookie Pat White, a prolific option quarterback for four years at West Virginia.
"They had the one Wildcat package with Ronnie and Ricky in the game with the speed sweep with Williams coming across the field," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "That looks like that's died out and has been replaced with more of a Pat White package. ...
"They used it successfully against us. But they’ve built on that the last three weeks against Tampa, Carolina and then Buffalo. It looks to me like 95 percent of their offense is the same as it was with Ronnie and looks like they’ve maybe replaced a little bit of that Wildcat package with both of them in there with some other things, maybe the Pat White package, I don’t know."
The most dangerous Wildcat package requires three things:
1. Two players in the backfield, including the player who takes the shotgun snap, who can run with the ball.
2. At least one who can throw the ball.
3. Blockers who pick up their assignments.
Brown could throw the ball -- both of his two career touchdown passes have come against the Patriots -- but not the way White can throw the ball.
"He’s a quarterback," Belichick said. "Ronnie's not the passer Pat is and Pat's not the runner that Ronnie is, but they both can do elements of both. That's how they give you problems."
When the Dolphins unveiled White against the Patriots a month ago, Brown was still available -- but he wasn't even in the game.
White (6) lined up in the shotgun next to fullback Lousaka Polite (36) with Williams (34) deep behind him. White took the snap and began to run an option to his right as the play took shape in front of him:
1. The right tackle and right guard had to block the Patriots' defensive end on that side.
2. The tight end had to get to the second level of the defense to block a linebacker.
3. The center had to get to the second level to block a linebacker.
4. The wide receiver had to get downfield to block the corner.
5. Polite had to get downfield to block the safety.
Nine blockers took care of nine defensive players. The only two who were allowed to run free were (a) the safety on the opposite side of the field, and (b) the outside linebacker on the near side of the field. If the linebacker went after White, though, he pitched it to Williams. If the linebacker went after Williams, White took it himself:
The first time the Dolphins ran the play, Tully Banta-Cain sprinted straight for Williams -- and White ran for a 33-yard gain. The second time the Dolphins ran the play, Adalius Thomas waited patiently for White -- so the pitch went to Williams, who ran for 15 yards and a touchdown.
White even can throw the ball, something the Dolphins haven't shown much yet but likely will show more as the quarterback gets more experience within the offense. White completed six of his 16 pass attempts in the preseason, but he's missed on all three of his pass attempts so far this season.
Against the Patriots, he took a shotgun snap with Ronnie Brown alongside him and three wide receivers on the field, as basic as a formation gets. His pass for Greg Camarillo sailed well out of bounds -- but it was the pressure of Banta-Cain that ruined the play more than anything else. In his senior season at West Virginia, after all, White completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 1,844 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Having White throw the ball is a wrinkle the Dolphins haven't yet mastered, but it's inevitable -- and you might see it this week in a must-win game against the Patriots.
"That's one of the hard things about playing Miami: They keep it moving on you," Belichick said. "You work on one thing, and they're working on something else. Sometimes they come back to it and sometimes they don’t, so you’ve got a lot of different bases to cover. They did a good job of keeping us off balance. They just keep pecking away and sooner or later they get you on something where you don't have quite the right placement or technique or distribution on, and you can be in trouble."
Even without Ronnie Brown in the backfield.