The Fallacy of The Michael Vick Experience By Matt Lombardo

Michael Vick looked the part of both a Pro Bowler and an average quarterback at times during the 2010 NFL Season.   Taking It to the House’s Matt Lombardo believes defenses now know how to neutralize him.  Making him wonder, if Vick can overcome his own deficiencies and solve the schemes that have plagued him for years.

On January 23, 2005 at Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles broke through the glass ceiling of the NFC Championship game for the team’s first trip to the Super Bowl in 25 years, after beating the Atlanta Falcons 27-10.  This game represented the high watermark for Michael Vick so far in his over 10-year NFL career and was his closest chance to date at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. That day, despite boasting the league’s No.1 ranked rushing offense and a defense that sent two players to the Pro Bowl, Vick was unable to carry the “Dirty Birds” to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, FL.

On that cold, blustery South Philadelphia January Sunday, the Eagles perfected the game plan to neutralize one of the game’s most dynamic athletes at the quarterback position. Unlike the Eagles “MO” of bringing the heat with the blitz, Jim Johnson called for his ends to ‘mush rush’ by keeping Vick in the pocket and making him survey the field, rather than chase him from the pocket in search of a sack. Down the field the Birds disguised their coverage confusing the Pro Bowl signal caller. Vick accounted for just 162 total yards and was sacked four times.

And thus the book “How to beat Michael Vick” was written that day.

Vick has made a career of seizing opportunities given to him by defenses both with down the field throws to his receivers and improvising with his legs. However, against the more physical defenses in the league and teams that employ a cover two scheme, Vick has struggled.

In 2010, Vick was given the unexpected opportunity to take the reigns of the Eagles offense after Kevin Kolb was concussed by Green Bay’s Clay Matthews in the season opener. Vick went on to start 11 regular season games and a playoff loss to the Packers, igniting the enthusiasm of Philadelphia fans in the process. Many looked at Vick as an MVP candidate, but when you delve into the numbers and the situations that played out, it’s the inconsistencies and not the highlights that jump off the page.

It’s true that the unlikeliest of Eagles franchise quarterbacks feasted on mediocre defenses last year, to the tune of a 8-3 record in games that he started. All told, the ten year veteran threw for 3,018 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions while also rushing for 676 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. His numbers put him amongst the best in the league.

There were though, major discrepancies in his performances against playoff teams and non playoff teams. In games against teams that missed the playoffs last year, Vick feasted.

Vick’s average QB rating in games against teams that missed the playoffs  was an astounding 131. His touchdown to interception ratio in those games was an impressive 14-5. But, when Vick played playoff teams his average QB rating dropped to a pedestrian 96.6, with a 1-1 record and a touchdown to interception ratio of 1.5 to 1.

Down the stretch, Vick’s flaws were brought to the forefront. There is no doubting Number 7’s athletic ability, but his propensity to take what defenses give him and outwit opposing defensive coordinators is a question mark. In the final three weeks of the 2010 season, teams began to see this trend. Teams with very physical cornerbacks and deep secondaries found and began to employ Vick’s kryptonite: The Cover two.

In the final half of last season the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and later the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Wild Card round found the formula of the cover two combined with the corner blitz to be the magic elixir to limiting Vick. Over the final three weeks of the season and Philadelphia’s playoff loss Vick finished 2-2. During the stretch run Vick failed to throw for over 300 yards in his last three starts, and four of his six interceptions came over that time. Vick’s quarterback rating in the final six weeks of the season is roughly 80, which puts him in the middle of the pack.

Coincidence? I think not.

The Eagles alarms were sounded by the way their quarterback finished the season and sent Vick home before the lockout was implemented with a DVD featuring 142 mistakes that the QB made with pre-snap reads. It was his homework assignment to diagnose the coverages lined up against him and make mental notes of his mistakes against those schemes.

Transition to the 2011 pre-season and although anyone who launches into full fledge panic mode after one pre-season start requires a head examination, the same questions posed to Vick down the stretch a year ago are still present and unanswered.

In the second week of the pre-season Vick finished with a quarterback rating of 15.5 and threw three interceptions in a half of work against the vaunted AFC Champion Steelers. What’s troublesome is how each of the INT’s occurred. Vick’s first interception came against a straight cover two, where Vick played right into the hands of the defense forcing the ball into double coverage that had not developed until after the snap, and never looked off safety Ryan Clark who was waiting to jump into coverage alongside his corner.

The second came when he telegraphed the pass, and threw the ball to the wrong shoulder of his receiver. Finally out of frustration on his third interception Vick forced a pass into the hands of Troy Polamalu as the pocket collapsed around him.  Pittsburgh did a nice job of disguising their coverages going from a Cover two on Vick’s first INT, to a Man Pro on the second to a base zone coverage on the third. Three interceptions, three different cover schemes, three more questions for Vick.

Again, it would be silly to judge Vick’s overall performance on one pre-season game in August. But, the fact that the quarterback enters this season as the team’s starter for the first time and is doing so without the benefit of any off-season reps with the first team, film study with coaches, or OTA’s is a concern. For a quarterback who has never been known to have the best work and study habits prior to his career brniging him to Philadelphia, the risk of a regression is clear and present.

Vick’s lifeblood in Atlanta was his legs and the dump off pass to his tight end. Down the stretch last season, Vick’s security blanket became DeSean Jackson and when teams took that away he struggled. It remains to be seen this year if Vick can continue to raise his game to the level that made him a Pro Bowler last year, or if he will continue to fall victim to clever defensive game plans designed specifically to force him to remain in the pocket and make reads both at the line of scrimmage and mid play.

The book on how to beat Michael Vick has been out for nearly seven years and was dusted off down the stretch last season. The onus is now on Vick to force opponents to rewrite the book as he elevates his game to a complete level. If he’s successful in that department, then the Eagles are a team to be reckoned with. If not, then the familiar final chapters for both a quarterback and a franchise may be unavoidable.

Matt Lombardo is a reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL

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