Vick aims to improve vs. blitz

Quarterback Michael Vick signals to the offense during training camp. The Eagles will ask him to make adjustments at the line.
Quarterback Michael Vick signals to the offense during training camp. The Eagles will ask him to make adjustments at the line. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)

The Birds quarterback showed progress in camp, but then he struggled again in the loss to the Steelers.

Posted: August 25, 2011

Andy Reid meets with each of his players at the start of every Eagles training camp, and at some point during the conversation the Eagles coach will say, "Hey, what do you need to improve on?"

It's a loaded question in some ways because the meticulous Reid has his own list of improvements for each player. Needless to say, it helps when one of the player's answers matches that of the coach, as it did when Michael Vick had his sit-down with Reid.

"You have your little list of things you think, and one of things Mike said was, 'I need to be a little sharper with the blitz,' " Reid recently recalled. "Boom. OK. That's where we're going. That's one of my things. That's one of your things. Let's roll."

For three weeks of camp, Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg threw nearly every type of blitz they could imagine at Vick - conventional linebacker blitzes, overloads, zones, zeros - and the quarterback had great success.

But you can't replicate a game in practice, and when the Eagles faced the Steelers in their second preseason game, last Thursday, Vick had trouble against the blitz. Two of his three interceptions in only one half of play occurred when Pittsburgh sent extra pass rushers.

While the preseason isn't always an effective gauge, Vick's occasional struggles against the blitz in the second half of last season - especially in the deflating loss to Minnesota - signaled a trend for some. Even Vick, who has sometimes fought change, eventually came around.

"I think about my game and how I can improve and what can be done differently, and that's all I can think of," Vick said. "Everything else is just playing - seeing the field, reacting. I'm nine years in, so this is the last step, the last phase to get me to where I'm going."

Too much?

Since Vick arrived in Philadelphia, Eagles coaches have worked exhaustively on his anticipation. Much of a quarterback's anticipation of what a defense will do comes from his pre-snap reads. But there's a danger in asking your quarterback to become a coordinator on the field, especially when you have one like Vick with a tremendous feel for the game.

"He has very, very good blitz awareness at this point," Mornhinweg said. "Now the choices are how much do you give him because too much could be just as bad as not enough. Most of the great quarterbacks I've coached want to be involved, but there's a fine line of too much."

Before his first interception against the Steelers, Vick anticipated that safety Ryan Clark, standing on the numbers, would cover toward the middle of the field. He was wrong. When Pittsburgh blitzed two linebackers up the middle, Vick threw to Riley Cooper down the sideline thinking the wide receiver had single coverage. Clark, though, was over the top, slid over to help, and made the easy pick.

"Michael Vick has never been that good before the snap of the ball," said NFL Films' Greg Cosell, a frequent observer of the quarterback on film. "The game has changed so much in terms of pressure and scheme that you have to be great before the snap. And because of the lockout Vick didn't get the full offseason of work that he needed."

Vick hasn't had a full offseason as a starter since 2006. Still, the Eagles made one slight change to his pre-snap routine in that he will make the majority of protection calls at the line of scrimmage.

Mornhinweg called it a "natural progression" for Vick. Reid said the change was primarily because new offensive line coach Howard Mudd prefers it that way. But Mudd's relationship in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning had to have some bearing on the change.

"Here was an offensive line coach once responsible for protecting probably the greatest quarterback in history in what to do before the snap, and he's now responsible for Vick's protection," Cosell said.

Manning calls almost all his plays and audibles - or at least appears to - constantly at the line. The Eagles aren't asking Vick to be Manning, although he has changed plays in the past and will continue to have that option. They just want him to make the proper read on a blitz and react accordingly.

"You evolve with your quarterback on how you're going to handle it," Mornhinweg said. "There's three or four different ways to handle, let's say, a classic overload blitz. But you want to handle it the way the quarterback feels most comfortable."

Same page

Vick's statistics against the blitz last season were above average. He had a 91.8 passer rating, and that doesn't even include the times he scrambled for yards and touchdowns. The numbers also fail to take into account Vick's often shaky protection.

He was sacked six times and fumbled twice in that infamous loss to the Vikings last December. And while some of the sacks were Vick's fault, Eagles coaches will now say that calls weren't made, and blocks were missed.

"It wasn't that bad," Vick said. "It's just about us being on the same page. I didn't get blitzed that much. It's just about everybody knowing what's going on."

Vick didn't get blitzed much last season because he often burned defenses that dared to. The two victories over the New York Giants are perfect examples. The Eagles' mentality is: "When you blitz, we score." More touchdowns are thrown when there's an extra rusher than at any other time in the NFL.

Ultimately, Vick's success against the blitz could come down to two factors, each of which is tied to the other. The Eagles could try to limit his improvisation, which accounted for all those spectacular spins out of sacks early in the season.

"When Michael Vick avoids someone and [avoids] a sack, that's no different than when Antoine Winfield sacks him, forces a fumble, and runs for a touchdown," Cosell said, referring to the Viking cornerback's game-changing play in December. "That's just camouflaging a problem."

Or the Eagles could allow Vick to play instinctively and risk having a banged-up quarterback late in the season - like the one who apparently couldn't shake Winfield.

"You tell me one football player in the National Football League that's not banged up by the end of the season," Reid said. "They're all hurting. But he wasn't hurt any more than anyone else."


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

 

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