The uniquely compelling storylines surrounding this game pertain to off-field matters.
But those storylines wouldn’t exist if not for the action taking place on-field. (The reason you don’t know the names of the 17 people arrested in the dogfighting sting in Pass Christian, Mississippi on April 24, 2007 is because none of those 17 people had ever juked and jived 50-plus yards for a touchdown in an NFL game.)
Here’s an on-field breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons’ upcoming match up against their former quarterback.
1. Has he really changed?
As a leader and student of the game, Michael Vick has clearly grown since his days in Atlanta. But his recent growth as a pocket passer has been overstated. Vick is a sounder technician and smarter decision-maker than he was as a Falcon, but that’s not unlike saying Leonardo DiCaprio is a better actor now than he was on Growing Pains.
Of course he’s better now – he’s older and had nowhere to go but up.
Vick still doesn’t diagnose defenses with great acuity. He struggles to identify blitzes and relies too much on sandlot tactics. To be clear, those sandlot tactics are incomparably spectacular; few quarterbacks make as many plays as Vick. But few also leave as many plays on the field.
2. Speed Factor
The most significant resource Vick has in Philadelphia that he didn’t have in Atlanta is speed around him. Vick’s own speed can give defensive coordinators nightmares. Vick’s speed coupled with the speed of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy make for night terrors.
It’s the type of speed that can kill – not just quickly, but also slowly. Defensive backs on both sides of the field must play with a meaty cushion against Eagle wideouts, which makes it easier for Vick to identify coverages and throwing lanes. Teams also must keep their safeties over the top, which puts added responsibility on linebackers to cover crossing patterns inside, thus opening up the flats for McCoy out of the backfield (McCoy’s 79 receptions easily led all running backs last season).
Vick’s speed also makes life easier on his offensive tackles, as defensive ends are often instructed to keep him in the pocket by rushing with less vigorous containment tactics. Because opposing pass-rushes can be naturally tentative, the Eagles don’t need to bother with play-action.
It’s foolish to play man coverage against the Eagles. For starters, few teams have two corners fast enough to consistently run with Jackson and Maclin. What’s more, in man coverage, the defenders turn their backs to the ball and run away from the action by following receivers, which creates enormous outside running lanes for a quarterback to exploit if he gets outside the pocket (this is how Vick killed the Giants in Week 15 last season).
Fortunately, the Falcons are a zone-oriented defense, so they won’t have to adjust their scheme much for this game. But they will have to adjust their execution. Last Sunday against Chicago, the Bears used downfield route combinations that stretched the Falcon safeties over the top and created gaping voids in the deep-intermediate sectors of the zone. It was problematic.
Philly’s outside speed will only exacerbate this problem Sunday night – especially given that Falcon corners Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson prefer to play off coverage at the line of scrimmage rather than delivering a jam.
4. The Solution
To prevent the Eagles from stretching the zone coverage, the Falcons must force Vick to get rid of the ball quickly. Doing this will also put the onus on Vick’s presnap reads and prevent him from extending the play and conjuring his sandlot magic. Mike Smith and Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder should tell their men again and again that the earlier Vick gets rid of the ball Sunday night, the better.
Atlanta is capable of bringing heat. As we talked about last week, Smith has adopted a more aggressive philosophy than he had as the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. The zone blitz out of a 4-3 base or nickel package has become a staple in the Falcons’ scheme.
With pressuring Vick being so important, and with the Eagles having a makeshift, incohesive interior line, it’s as viable a tactic as ever.
5. Control Clock
For as much hoopla as there’s been about the addition of Julio Jones, the Falcons are still a power-run team (their unbalanced play-calling against Chicago was a function of the lopsided score). Michael Turner is a bruising high-volume runner and the offensive line is an unathletic but well-sized group.
The Falcons, working out of a Mike Mularkey playbook that’s rich with two-back and two-tight end formations, are already built to mount long drives. They’ll be wise to shorten the game and avoid a shootout with the Eagles.
So who will win? Check our expert picks for all Week 1 games.
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