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When the Rams broke the huddle early in the third quarter against Dallas on Oct. 19, tight end Anthony Becht lined up at left tackle, and left tackle Adam Goldberg jogged to the right side of the line outside right tackle Alex Barron. A few Cowboys defenders looked around, as if to say, "What the..." But before they could adjust, St. Louis quick-snapped, and quarterback Marc Bulger handed the ball to tailback Steven Jackson, who burst through the hole sealed off by Goldberg, fullback Dan Kreider and receiver Torry Holt, flanked right. Dallas had kept a safety over the top of Becht instead of identifying Goldberg as the tight end and shifting the safety over. The rarely used unbalanced line gave the Rams an overwhelming advantage on the right side, and Jackson's 56-yard touchdown run finished off the Cowboys in a 34--14 upset.
Miami's Wildcat formation—the direct snap to a running back, with the quarterback split wide—is the most-talked-about offensive trick of the first half of 2008. The Dolphins have run it 41 times, for a gaudy 7.0 yards per play and six touchdowns, and it has been replicated by six teams. "But that's not the only thing offenses are doing," Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says. "I'm seeing more gimmicky stuff than I've seen in recent years. Seems like every week we're preparing for something strange."
The Cardinals have used three defensive players on offense, and had a wide receiver, a running back and a punter throw passes. At least four offenses have tried to catch defenses napping with unbalanced lines in the season's first half; the Browns used such a scheme to throw a 51-yard fourth-down pass to tight end Steve Heiden at Jacksonville in Week 8. That same Sunday the Ravens stunned the Raiders by lining up two quarterbacks in the backfield. One, Joe Flacco, took the snap and handed off to the other, Troy Smith, who then threw a 43-yard completion—to Flacco.
Why all the gimmickry this year? "Technology," says Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who called the unbalanced-line play that stumped the Cowboys. He spoke from his office last week, taking a break from game planning for the Cardinals on Sunday. "Here I am, looking at every third-down snap Arizona has run in the last seven games, and I'm able to do that because our video systems are so far advanced over what they were a few years ago. I've seen everything Arizona does on defense in every situation. What we try to do is gain an alignment advantage at the snap of the ball, which is how we made that play against Dallas. If you're willing to think outside the box these days, you give your team a chance—because that's what 31 other teams, with the same technology, are trying to do."
The teams employing such trickery have something in common: With the exception of the explosive Cardinals, who lead the NFL in points per game (29.2), they're mostly struggling to score with conventional schemes. Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland and St. Louis are all averaging 21.4 points or less. So why not try to pull something out of a hat?
Crackdown on Headcracking
On the fourth play from scrimmage on Oct. 19, Steelers receiver Hines Ward laid out Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers with a blindside block that broke Rivers's jaw and ended his season. Ward's hit didn't draw a flag, and he must have been surprised when it didn't draw a fine from the NFL either. The best blocking wideout of his era, Ward has twice been docked by the league this year for hits on plays that weren't penalized during the game. In all, such hits have cost Steelers players $50,000 in fines in the first half of the season, prompting team brass to call the NFL for a clarification of league policy—and some Steelers players to complain that the team is being singled out.
It's not. The NFL is coming down hard on anyone it views as jeopardizing player safety—whether or not the on-field refs spot a transgression. Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack and Jets safety Eric Smith have been suspended and fined for one game each for hits that the league deemed flagrant, while Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson was docked $25,000 for a helmet-to-helmet blow to Bills quarterback Trent Edwards.
Says Ward, "I understand when it comes to hits on the quarterback, but any other position? It's hard to sit there and tell everybody it's a violent sport but tone it down a little. When I go across the middle, those guys aren't going to tackle me softly and lay me down to the ground. That's not football. I find it ironic that now you see a receiver delivering blows, and it's an issue. But I haven't changed. I've been doing it this way for 11 years."
Front-office execs contend that the number of fines and suspensions this season isn't out of the ordinary. "This has been going on for the last few years, even under the prior commissioner," says Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo. "The officials can't see everything. And some things are pointed out by other teams that ask the league to review them. We don't want dirty play. We don't want unnecessary roughness. Everybody knows where clean and dirty are."