The Green Bay Packers this week are not facing the Michael Vick who beat them for the franchise’s first-ever home playoff loss in January 2002.
That Vick, in only his second NFL season, was a 22˝-year-old physical marvel who won games on pure talent for the Atlanta Falcons. Over the next few years, though, NFL defenses exposed his shortcomings, namely that he was scatter armed and a poor student of the game.
Now at age 30 and 1˝ years removed from serving a 19-month sentence in federal prison for running a dog-fighting ring, Vick has become a better quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles than he ever was in his physical prime with Atlanta. His throwing fundamentals have improved, and though he’s still not a pinpoint passer and in the past couple weeks has had problems handling blitz-heavy defenses, he’s still far superior in those areas to the player who was kicked out of the NFL in 2007 for his criminal activity.
Plus, he remains the best running threat at quarterback probably in the history of the game.
“I still think he’s going to get hurt sooner or later because of the way he throws himself around, he’s just not a big guy,” said a long-time NFL defensive coach who faced the Eagles late this season. “But he’s much more accurate throwing the ball. Still has great arm strength, he can throw it 70 yards easy, whereas most guys are 55, 60, if you’ve got big-armed guys. He can throw 70 with a flick of the wrist. He’s more-than-accurate right now throwing the ball. He gets flustered but not like he used to.”
The last time the Packers saw Vick was in their 27-20 win in this year’s opener, when Vick replaced injured Kevin Kolb (concussion) and nearly rallied the Eagles from a 17-point deficit. Vick entered the game late in the first quarter, rushed for 109 yards, passed for 175 more, and put up a passer rating of 101.9 points.
He’s 8-2 in the 10 games he’s started and finished this season — injured ribs against Washington knocked him out of that Week 4 loss in the first half and prevented him from playing the next three games as well. His average of 56.3 yards rushing a game was third-best in his eight-year career and shows he’s running as well as ever. More importantly, his passer rating of 100.2 points obliterated his best season with the Falcons (81.6 points in ’02).
For a while this year, Vick looked nearly unbeatable and threw no interceptions in his first 211 passes. But defenses have caught up to him more recently — six interceptions in his last 161 throws — and in his last two games, against the New York Giants and Minnesota, Vick showed glimpses of the player he was earlier in his career. They also exposed the Eagles’ offensive line as a liability that Vick’s mobility camouflaged much of the year.
The Giants’ ultra-aggressive blitz package worked perfectly for the first 3˝ quarters of that game. Under constant pressure and becoming indecisive on occasion, Vick was sacked three times, had only 121 yards passing and 36 yards rushing in the first 52 minutes. The Giants appeared to have the game locked when they scored to take a 31-10 lead with 8:17 to play. But in the final eight minutes, Vick went wild. He threw for 121 yards and rushed for 94 more, including scrambles of 35, 33 and 22 yards, in leading the Eagles to an improbable comeback win.
The next week, the Vikings made Vick look even more like his younger self with a package of pressures that included extensive blitzing of cornerback Antoine Winfield, though it must be noted Vick sustained a bruised thigh on his first play that limited his mobility the rest of the game. Regardless, Vick and his line had trouble reading the blitzes, and he had a horrible performance (74.1 passer rating, 25-for-43 passing). Without his usual mobility he was sacked six times, fumbled twice and threw an interception. In a game it needed to win for a shot at a first-round bye in the playoffs, Philadelphia suffered a stunning 24-14 home loss to a rookie quarterback, Joe Webb, who was drafted to play receiver.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has looked hard at those game tapes and no doubt will try to confuse Vick and his line with a mix of disguised blitzes and coverage-oriented calls. But keeping Vick in the pocket is imperative, blitz or not, so the rushers can’t come at him with abandon. That’s what allowed Vick to break out on the three long runs in the final eight minutes against the Giants — the blitzes kept coming, but out-of-control rushers lost contain.
“If you blitz him and he gets through, there’s nobody left, nobody’s going to catch him,” the coach said. “So you have to be careful in how you blitz and make sure all the lanes are covered. But you want to be aggressive too. You want to be careful your guys aren’t so conscious of staying in their lanes it looks like slow motion. I’ve seen that happen to teams. There’s a fine line. And at the time Minnesota had nothing to lose, they’re out of (the playoffs), they just started blitzing. This will be a different circumstance this week.”
Though the Eagles’ line is a weakness, their explosive talent around Vick is another problem. Receiver DeSean Jackson is rightfully going to the Pro Bowl this year despite having only 47 catches, because he’s probably the most dangerous open-field runner in the NFL. Jeremy Maclin, the other starting receiver, has better-than-average speed for the position, and LeSean McCoy (1,080 yards rushing, 592 yards receiving) is a speed back.
One way to try to keep Vick in the pocket is to mirror him with a linebacker or safety as a spy, but that removes a player from either coverage or the pass rush.
“If you can handle the receivers one-on-one, you have an extra guy for the quarterback,” the coach said. “If you can’t handle the receivers one on one, you have issues. You can’t have two guys on each receiver, a guy on the (running) back, and a guy on the quarterback, you just don’t have enough bodies. The biggest thing about them, they have great speed everywhere.”
Pete Dougherty writes for the Green Bay Press-Gazette