Work stoppage could hurt Vick's chances to improve in offseason

Labor issues could hamper Michael Vick's work on blitz pickup.
Labor issues could hamper Michael Vick's work on blitz pickup.
Posted: January 12, 2011

TIMES CHANGE and so has the blueprint for attacking Michael Vick.

Six years ago, when Vick was a one-trick pony with roadrunner speed and little patience for standing in the pocket and going through his progressions, the blueprint was a "mush'' rush, which Jim Johnson and the Eagles' defense used to perfection in their January 2005 NFC Championship Game win over Vick and the Falcons.

Johnson dropped seven defenders into coverage and went after Vick with a deliberate, stay-in-your-lane, four-man rush that sacrificed pressure for keeping Houdini confined to the pocket with no place to run.

The result: Vick completed just 11 of 24 passes for 136 yards and no touchdowns, and was sacked four times in a 17-point Eagles win.

Now, the blueprint is pressure. Blitz the hell out of him. Send linebackers up the "A'' gap. Send cornerbacks from the slot. Send safeties off the edge. Send truck drivers off I-95. Send Aunt Emma with her walker.

After Vick and his speedy receiving corps lit up the Redskins for 59 points in Week 10, the rest of the NFL declared war on Vick and the Eagles' offense. Rather than let him sit back there and pick them apart, they decided to blitz him and see how that worked.

As it turned out, it worked very well. In his first six games this season, Vick threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions and averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. He fumbled just twice, losing neither.

In his last seven games, including Sunday's 21-16 playoff loss to the Packers, he had 11 TDs and seven interceptions and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt. He had nine fumbles, losing three.

"We were hitting our stride and putting a lot of points up in the middle of the season,'' center Mike McGlynn said. "Then teams just said, 'We can't sit back and let them pick us apart.' Their answer was to go ahead and blitz us. A lot.

"It seemed like it started with that first Giants game [in Week 11]. It seemed like every week we were getting blitzed toward the end of the season. It's just something we have to prepare for. When teams blitz like that, there's opportunities for big plays. We just have to capitalize and block it up and hit the big plays and they'll back off.''

The big plays were fewer and farther between after teams started regularly blitzing Vick. The Birds had a league-high 15 pass plays of 40 yards or more this season, but 12 of them came in the first nine games.

Vick had a career-high 100.2 passer rating this season, but it slipped to 90.5 against the blitz. He had a .550 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and three interceptions against the blitz. He was sacked a league-high 19 times when defenses sent extra rushers.

"This is such a copycat league,'' said Jim Mora, Vick's former coach in Atlanta and an analyst for Fox Sports and NFL Network. "As soon as somebody had success blitzing Mike, people saw there was a susceptibility to it because the offensive line was struggling, maybe because Mike was struggling, because the receivers were struggling.

"When somebody sees that, when they look at that on tape Monday morning when they're getting ready to play [the Eagles], they say, 'Well, I'm going to do that too.' If they can't stop it, let's see if they've come up with an answer. If you can come up with a twist they haven't seen, you're going to keep bringing it, man. Keep bringing it.''

As Andy Reid has correctly pointed out several times, the Eagles' problems against the blitz weren't all Vick's fault. But he often was the main culprit. He's the guy who has to recognize where the blitz is coming from and get the ball out, even if it's to the vendor in Section 317.

"It's just not his strong suit,'' an NFC scout for a team that played the Eagles said. "He doesn't do anything at the line of scrimmage. In the league today, with all the different looks defenses are giving you, your quarterback has to be able to adjust and set the protections at the line of scrimmage.

"There were way too many free rushers that got to him. You watch guys like [Tom] Brady and [Aaron] Rodgers and [Peyton] Manning and [Drew] Brees and [Philip] Rivers, there also may be a free rusher. But they get the ball out because they know it's a free rusher. The quarterback understands that's his guy and is going to try and beat him with the throw.''

Bottom line: Vick and the Eagles' offense have a lot of work ahead this offseason correcting their deficiencies against the blitz.

It's going to be the focus of every minicamp practice and OTA and training-camp workout. It's going to be the feature attraction in every film session because teams are going to keep blitzing Vick until he proves that he can beat it.

There's only one problem. Depending on what happens with the labor situation, there may not be any minicamp practices or OTAs or even much of a training camp or preseason.

The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on March 4. If there's no new deal in place by then, a lockout is likely, which means everything in the league stops, with the exception of the April draft.

In the event of a lockout, players would be barred from their team's training facilities. Offseason activities, including minicamps, would be put on hold until an agreement is reached. The Eagles' opportunities to correct their problems against the blitz would diminish with every day the lockout lingered.

Vick has sent out mixed messages the last couple of weeks with respect to his struggles against the blitz. One minute, he acts like he's got nothing left to learn and says he's just going to "play my game.'' The next minute, he acknowledges that he's got things he needs to work on. The truth probably is somewhere in between.

"The sky's the limit and I know that,'' he said Monday. "I know how hard I've got to work. I know what I can accomplish. I know the things I didn't do so well this year that I'm going to try to improve on in the offseason and going into next year.''

Said Reid: "Listen, it's not only the quarterback in a blitz situation. But he can get better at it. The one great thing about football is that you can always improve.''

With practice. *

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