— We already take Michael Vick’s comeback for granted. We forget how implausible it would have sounded just four months ago. It took just one play to change expectations.
Vick replaced an injured Kevin Kolb at halftime of the team’s opener against the Packers. On the first play after intermission, Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji stormed through Philly’s line virtually untouched. (This would become a season-long trend.) The play looked busted.
Vick quickly side-stepped Raji, out-raced linebacker Brad Jones to the sideline, cut inside to avoid safety Nick Collins, and sprinted back outside to avoid linebacker Clay Matthews for a 23-yard gain. The Packers didn’t know what hit them.
Back then, we thought Vick was a shell of his former Atlanta self. He looked to be in better shape than 2009, but he wasn’t seen as a true threat to Kolb’s job at the time.
“Let’s see how Vick can throw the football,” FOX analyst Troy Aikman said when Vick came in.
What followed was a precise passing display that surprised even Vick’s biggest supporters. He delivered with pressure in his face and into small windows. Trailing 13-3 at halftime, Vick came up one drive short on his comeback bid that day.
Vick finished with 100 yards rushing and over seven yards per passing attempt. By the end of the game, Aikman’s tune had changed.
“It looks like the three-time Pro Bowler from Atlanta!” Aikman exclaimed.
Vick came so far, so fast in 2010 that we now expect him to dazzle us weekly. We expect a show and feel cheated when he’s ordinary. That’s why Vick’s disastrous Week 16 against the Vikings was so jarring.
The Eagles lost their chance at a playoff bye against Minnesota. Vick was hurt and it appeared the Eagles had no answer for the Vikings’ blitz packages. It’s become clearer how many obstacles stand in Vick’s way of finishing this comeback season in grand style — in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
Blitzed to submission
The slide of the Eagles' offense really started in Week 14 against the Cowboys. We were just too blinded by Philadelphia’s big score in Dallas and subsequent fourth quarter miracle comeback against the Giants to notice.
Teams started approaching Vick differently. ESPN's Sal Palantonio that opponent’s blitzed 32.8 percent of the time before the Dallas game, with a defensive back rushing 17.1 percent of the time.
In Vick’s last three games (Cowboys, Giants, Vikings), opponents blitzed 50 percent of the time, sending a defensive back 33.6 percent of the time. The defenses barely disguised the pressure and it worked.
Vick was hit often in all three games. He was held to 16 yards rushing against Dallas — a season low. The Giants held Vick to 70 yards passing in the first three quarters with constant defensive back pressure. Vick was hit on the first play of the game — a blitz. He was pressured and threw an interception on the next play.
On the Giants’ first nine blitzes, Vick’s best play was a five-yard completion. He was limping at one point, but finally beat the pressure in the fourth quarter by making the Giants’ defensive backs whiff.
One of Vick’s many amazing skills is that he never seems to tire. Vick beat the Giants with his feet in the fourth quarter after getting hammered all afternoon. No other player could have pulled off that comeback.
There was no miracle in the Vikings loss. Hit again on the first play of the game, Vick was hobbled throughout with a quadriceps injury. He was sacked six times and turned the ball over twice.
Opponents forced Vick into nine turnovers in the final five games, fifth most in the league. He also had six fumbles recovered by the Eagles. Still the most explosive player in the league, Vick was forced into making more mistakes.
Eagles line woes
Vick’s mistakes increased largely because of the mistakes made by his linemen. Don’t let left tackle Jason Peters’ Pro Bowl appearance fool you. This is not a great Philly offensive line, especially in the middle. The first play I wrote about above was instructive. The Eagles struggled to contain Raji, and the second-year defensive tackle has only improved since.
Clay Matthews terrorized the Eagles in the opener, and the Packers hope to have their best lineman Cullen Jenkins back on Sunday. The Eagles linemen end up on the ground way too often. It’s not all about recognition. The Cowboys also took them apart and the group appears to lack cohesion, and communication.
"I think it's important starting with me that we're all aware of it and it's a team effort," coach Andy Reid said Wednesday. "It's an offensive effort to make sure that everybody's on the same page and we're rolling there."
The young guns
Philadelphia’s exciting youth on offense is a blessing, and it could also be a curse in the playoffs. The team’s young core of skill players need to do their part to combat quick pressure. Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin often can’t beat press coverage to become available to Vick quickly. Jackson needs to recognize where the blitz is coming from and run precise routes.
The Eagles are the best quick strike offense in the league. They aren’t great at long, slow touchdown marches. This is a week where Jackson, Maclin, and running back LeSean McCoy all have to be on the same page as Vick because the Packers will throw a lot at them.
This could be the league's most talented young core of skill position players. The Packers still have better continuity and chemistry. Aaron Rodgers throws with Greg Jennings and his other receivers beginning in March every year. They have grown up in the same system, along with wideouts Jordy Nelson and James Jones. (Donald Driver predates the system.)
Maclin, McCoy, and wideout Riley Cooper don’t have much experience in big games with Vick. Freelancing will be difficult to do against the Packers.
A nightmare matchup
The Eagles did not want to see the Packers. It’s not just because Rodgers can expose Philadelphia’s thin secondary or because the Packers wideouts can take advantage of the Philadelphia’s poor tackling. Green Bay’s defense can win a game on its own.
The Giants' approach worked for three and a half quarters because of their cornerbacks. Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas are both physical players that mostly smothered Jackson and Maclin in single coverage. That freed up safeties to blitz Vick.
There isn’t a better duo of physical cornerbacks than Green Bay’s Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. They can build on New York’s approach with one decided advantage: Woodson is the game's most versatile cornerback.
A lot of New York’s problems came from missed tackles from safeties Deon Grant and Kenny Phillips. Woodson isn’t going to miss those plays when he is in position. With plenty of time to prepare, Vick says they will be ready.
"If we see the same things, and I'm almost 100 percent sure that we'll get the type of looks — they might not be the exact same — but in some way, shape or form, it'll be similar,” Vick said this week. “So, we just have to be ready for it and I think we've learned a lot from watching that film."
Packers veteran defensive coordinator Dom Capers will show things Vick hasn’t seen. Capers has seen it all and knows better than to exactly duplicate what the Giants and Vikings did.
In the first matchup, Vick was sacked by linebacker Frank Zombo when he didn’t recognize who was coming off the edge. Matthews made a huge sack on the game’s final drive on a terrific individual play. Matthews plastered Vick another time.
By late in the fourth quarter of the opener, Green Bay’s pressures started to get home. Capers and the Packers won’t be preparing for Kevin Kolb this time. They know what they are getting.
A “Nightmare” for both sides
Those are some of the obstacles Vick faces. It makes it sound like the Eagles are a heavy underdog, which is hardly the case. That’s the magic of Vick, the ultimate equalizer. After the first Packers-Eagles game, Williams said Vick forced the team to throw out their game-plan.
Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett was asked this week by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel where Vick ranked on the team’s “to-do list” this week.
“He is the to-do list,” Pickett said.
This game remains a toss-up because Vick breaks all the normal rules. He rushed for nine touchdowns in 12 games; the Packers rushed for 11 all season. Vick easily averaged more rushing yards per-game than any Packers running back. When throwing the ball, Vick ranked in the top five overall in yards per attempt and quarterback rating.
It doesn’t get any better for a wild-card game. We get to watch two of the best five quarterbacks in the league with supporting casts talented enough to win it all.
Logic points to the Packers, who are peaking at the right time. They have fewer mountains to climb. Logic also said Kevin Kolb would be Philadelphia’s quarterback this season and that Vick would never regain the skills he had in Atlanta.
Michael Vick’s game has never been about logic.