To protect Vick, Eagles must lay it all on the line

Posted: October 03, 2013

"I do know this - and we've got to address it - we have to protect [Michael Vick] better. We've got times where he is at the top of his drop and he is sticking his foot into the ground and there's pressure on him. That's not on Mike."

- Chip Kelly, after Eagles' 52-20 loss to the Broncos

THE EAGLES' offensive line was supposed to be one of the team's greatest strengths this season.

With the return to health of All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters (ruptured Achilles'), center Jason Kelce (torn ACL) and right guard Todd Herremans (broken foot), the emergence of left guard Evan Mathis as a Pro Bowl-level blocker, and the addition of a right tackle - Lane Johnson - who was the fourth overall pick in the April draft, both Vick and running back LeSean McCoy appeared to be in very good hands.

"This group can be really good," an NFL scout told me before the season. "They're all very athletic. They can move the line of scrimmage. They can knock people off the ball. They're capable of doing a lot of things up front, and literally, that's the whole key to this offense.

"If they can do their job and dominate up front, it will allow Kelly to get five guys out in routes and spread the field a little more and make things better for the quarterback, make things better for the running backs."

The line certainly has made things better for McCoy, who leads the NFL in rushing after 4 weeks with 468 yards. But it hasn't been nearly as helpful to Vick, who already has been sacked 14 times.

The Eagles are a dismal 28th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play, which, believe it or not, is six spots lower than last year when Peters, Kelce and Herremans missed a combined total of 38 games.

Yes, Vick often does hold on to the ball too long. According to Pro Football Focus, his snap-to-throw average of 3.4 seconds is the longest in the league.

Even so, he's been under pressure on 46.5 percent of his dropbacks in the first four games. That's higher than last year when he was being protected by a cast of backups. It's also higher than any other passer in the top 10 (Vick is 10th with a 93.2 rating).

"We're not happy with the way we've played," Kelce said yesterday. "This isn't a one-dimensional game. We've done some good things in the running game. But that doesn't mean anything.

"The highest-paid person, the most important person on the football team usually is the quarterback. And unless the offensive line is protecting him and giving him the time he needs, the offensive line isn't doing a good job."

Vick isn't a trusting sort when it comes to his offensive line. He trusts his legs a lot more than the human beings who are paid handsomely to keep him safe. Give him a reason to run and he will.

You saw that on the third play of the game Sunday when Johnson and Peters allowed Broncos defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips to get outside pressure on Vick.

Mathis, Kelce and Herremans did a good job of preventing any inside push. Vick could've easily stepped up in the pocket and bought a couple more seconds to throw. Instead, he bolted, running for a 4-yard gain rather than waiting for a receiver to get open.

"When we have a couple of breakdowns up front, it makes Mike's life a little tougher," Herremans said. "We need to start the game off strong and give him all the faith in the world in us so he knows he can stand back there and deliver the ball."

Said Vick: "I'm not worried about the protection. We'll get that straight. If not, we'll find a way."

Vick's "way," more often than not, is to run. He already has 26 rushing attempts, most of them on scrambles when his protection has broken down, rather than designed runs. That's a 104-carry pace. Thirty-three year-old quarterbacks shouldn't be running the ball 104 times.

Vick has been pressured on 67 of 144 dropbacks in the first four games. He's got a .362 completion percentage on throws under pressure compared to .676 with no pressure. So you can see why improving the quality of his protection is so important.

Most of the times he's been pressured it's been with a four-man rush. Opposing defenses haven't blitzed him much because of the fear of getting stung by the read option. They've played man-to-man coverage and sent extra rushers on just 27.8 percent of his dropbacks, compared to 39.5 percent last year.

Peters has played OK, but hasn't been as dominant as he was 2 years ago before his injury when he was the best left tackle in the game. He's already given up a sack and 14 hurries. In 2011, he allowed 17 hurries the entire season.

Herremans' play also hasn't returned to the level it was before his foot injury. While the foot seems fine, he tweaked his knee this summer in the preseason game against the Patriots. He got a cortisone shot to reduce the inflammation at one point, and says the knee is fine. But he doesn't seem to be moving his feet nearly as well as he was before the injury.

Johnson had a solid preseason and played well in the first two games against Washington and San Diego. But he struggled in pass-protection against both Kansas City and Denver. He's given up a team-high four sacks and 13 hurries.

"Lane's very frustrated with the way he's been playing," Kelce said. "The good thing is he's got all the physical tools. He's a smart kid. He knows who he's blocking. The bad thing is sometimes he's overthinking things.

"That's the thing we've tried to hone in on with him; telling him he's doing way too much thinking out there. You've got the end on this pass play. Do your correct technique and don't overthink it. It's good that Todd is next to him and is able to bring him back in sometimes."

Johnson said it's an adjustment going from college, where he almost never got beat, to the NFL where "everybody's getting paid to do a job."

"It's quite a change," he said. "I was talking to one of my buds who played with me at Oklahoma, [Chiefs offensive lineman] Donald Stephenson. He said you're going to get beat. It's how you go on to the next play and see how resilient you are [that is the key]."

Herremans is confident the line will get its act together and block as well for Vick as it's been blocking for McCoy.

"I don't think it's anything to do with scheme or getting outmanned or anything like that," he said. "I think consistently right now what's happening is we're having one guy have a technical breakdown with his technique. Hand placement. Moving his feet. It's just some technique stuff we need to fix and just rep it in practice.

"We know that we're able to move the ball well. We know we can move it consistently and quickly and efficiently. But we run our heads into a wall sometimes with dumb mistakes and poor decisions."


On Twitter: @Pdomo


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