Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
17 Nov 2010
by Doug Farrar
When I first put the new and improved Michael Vick under the microscope in late September with Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup, it was before the chest injury that held Vick out for four weeks. It was also before his return to the Eagles' lineup that has resulted in two consecutive NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards. The Vick I saw then was an evolved version of the exciting-but-limited speed-option superstar who set the Atlanta Falcons running game ablaze, and an enormous improvement over the misplaced backup who looked slow and low for the Eagles in 2009.
With a full season under the tutelage of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, Vick finally became what everybody hoped he could be -- an actual quarterback who could read defenses and wait for plays to develop. Those new skills are now combined with foot speed that apparently hasn't decreased a bit despite all the obvious drama in his life.
At the time, Greg and I believed that we saw the best game of Vick's career in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions. It was Vick's first NFL start since 2006, and he completed 21-of-34 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns. In that game, and in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers, Vick also amazed with a rocket arm that could fire off mercilessly accurate 40-yard bombs with minimal effort. I saw a Vick that stuck in the pocket and made plays with his head first, his arm second, and his feet third. It was only a question of keeping it going.
|Figure 1: Vick's first score|
Vick was injured two weeks later against the Washington Redskins, sat out three games and a bye, got his feet back under him in a close win over an injury-depleted Colts team, and went absolutely off the grid in the Redskins rematch at Fed Ex Field. Mere hours after the 'Skins signed Donovan McNabb to a contract extension that could be worth anywhere from 25 bucks to the all the money in Dubai, depending on which report you might be reading at any given time, Vick shoved that hot news back in the bin and put up one of the most amazing single-game quarterback performances in recent memory.
He finished with 333 yards and four touchdowns through the air, and 80 yards and two more touchdowns on the ground. He torched a Redskins defense that had no answers for what was about to happen to them. On the Eagles' first play from scrimmage (Fig. 1), a first-and-10 from the Philly 12-yard line with just four seconds gone by, Vick threw a perfect dart 65 yards in the air to DeSean Jackson, who beat deep safety LaRon Landry for an 88-yard score.
As Mike Mayock pointed out on the Tuesday edition of the NFL Network's outstanding Playbook show, Landry's failure on this play came early in Jackson's route -- at about the fifth step, after DeAngelo Hall let Jackson by without trying to slow him. Landry turned his back to Jackson and started running deep, which caused him to lose sight of Jackson and Vick. Not good. Jackson cut his deep post underneath Landry, got past Landry, who turned late, and it was off to the races.
|Figure 2: Vick stays in the pocket|
We've discussed Vick's ability and willingness to stay in the pocket and process his reads, and his 27-yard completion to Jason Avant with 2:47 left in the first half (Fig. 2) was a great example. Avant hit the right seam on one of the intermediate-to-deep combo crossing routes the Eagles love so well (and run as well as any team in the league), and you can see Vick read left, middle, right, run through his progressions, avoid happy feet, and only move in the pocket a step to the right as Avant came open deep. This was another Deep Safety Awareness Fail. By now, the Redskins were predetermining the need for a center fielder up top, and that affected their ability to deal with four-receiver concepts despite what should have been an effective zone blitz scheme.
Of course, when Vick found nothing but closed windows downfield, he made tracks of his own. The best example was his seven-yard touchdown run with 10:25 left in the first quarter (Fig. 3). The Redskins were still trying to recover from the previous play, a short pass to halfback LeSean McCoy that gained 27 yards. They sent eight men into coverage and rushed just three against an oft-maligned Philly line that held up with extra protection through most of the game.
The Redskins did "spy" zone gaps, as opposed to treating Vick like Joe Average, and it worked from a passing perspective. They broke out of a more traditional 5-2-4 look into a two-tiered zone idea. Because of this, Washington had good brackets from left to right in the end zone. Problem was, that left about five yards of empty space between the line of scrimmage and the first Redskins defender. At that point, Vick rolled right and did what he does -- zoomed it toward the end zone, gave end/misplaced spy Lorenzo Alexander a juke he's probably still feeling, and scored.
|Figure 3: Vick's touchdown run|
There's no question that Vick's performance was incredible, but the inevitable hyperbole should be tempered to some degree by Washington's defensive meltdowns. Jim Haslett's defense wasn't an effective unit before this game, and these results didn't help. That said, you have to consider advanced metrics and opponent adjustments and put them aside until you watch the game tape again ... and again. This was something very special.
What's clear in this incarnation of Michael Vick is a quarterback I've never seen before. He's a considerable improvement over the sometimes tentative, simple-read player who was still trying to integrate into a more advanced offense mere months ago. With the talent around him -- especially his deep receivers -- Vick now commands an offense that's lethal in the same way that Oregon's offense is lethal when it faces a half-decent Pac-10 opponent. That he's doing this in the NFL is the thing that leaves everyone incredulous -- and wondering just how long it can last.
What Vick brings to the game at this point in his career is no fluke. There has never been an NFL player with this combination of speed, agility and consistency in short-to-long throws. (Yes, the Randall Cunningham arguments start ... now!) But the most amazing aspect of his play now is the comfort with which he reads and steps into legitimate NFL throws. It's the one thing that takes spies and turns them into defenders vacating their coverage assignments so that they can be further exploited. It's the one thing I'd never seen from any other speed quarterback of his caliber, and if Vick can stay healthy, I don't see any reason for this bubble to pop.
As for the Redskins? Well ... this radio rant kind of sums it up for some people.
And yet, with all that Vick did, the opponent-adjusted aspects of our stats put Tom Brady atop the weekly quarterback list because Brady did what he did against the Steelers in Pittsburgh -- a slightly more formidable challenge. (Kyle Orton finished ahead of Vick as well, although you have to wonder if the adjustments for playing the Kansas City defense will look a bit different a few weeks from now.)
Both the Pats and Eagles were able to combine high-flying passing numbers with protection sets in which one or two tight ends stayed in to help with pass-blocking issues. And in New England's case, I was particularly impressed with the blocking of rookie Rob Gronkowski. His blocking stood out to me as much as the three touchdowns he caught. One of two tight ends taken by the Patriots in the 2010 draft, Gronkowski is now a symbol of the team's supposedly more integrated and versatile post-Moss offense. Results have been hit-and-miss overall, but the Sunday night win was a series of steps in the right direction.
What made Gronkowski's performance especially impressive was that it came a week after a 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns in which the rookie added to the collateral damage by blowing a fair catch on a kick return and fumbling in the red zone near the end of the first half. Against the Steelers, Gronkowski was tasked with several different assignments -- straight inline blocking, chip-and-release catches, and motion-to-route concepts that helped keep Pittsburgh's defense off-guard.
We'll start with his 25-yard touchdown, if only because you don't expect a tight end named "Gronkowski" who blocks well to be quick enough to get downfield. With 4:31 left in the game, the Pats lined up in a shotgun set on third-and-5. Gronkowski was inline to the left of left tackle Matt Light, and fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (who was featured far less than usual in this particular game) was in the right slot. Gronkowski hit the left seam at the snap and headed toward the end zone with single coverage. Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead took up the intermediate defenders with quick routes. Few teams employ route confusion to better effect than the Patriots, and this was an excellent example.
Still, I was focused on the blocking. With 4:15 left in the first quarter, Gronkowski subbed in for Hernandez and lined up outside eight tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Set up against end/linebacker LaMarr Woodley, Gronkowski basically acted as a functional third tackle on the play -- this wasn't the typical "hold him up and push him out" blocking you see from even the best blocking tight ends. Gronkowski displayed a reasonably good kick step and drop back on the play, taking Woodley out of Brady's perimeter. He also pulled off some nice edge blocks out of motion and seemed eager to look for blocking targets downfield. But the inline blocking ability is especially important in this new Pats offense and shouldn't be taken for granted. Exhibit A would be Alge Crumpler's epic whiff on Casey Hampton with 10:34 left in the third quarter.
As a pure pass-catcher, Gronkowski impressed me with his ability to get through a route even with initial contact, sync up with the quarterback, and stay open in short spaces. Less impressive were the efforts of Steelers cornerback William Gay, who was beaten outright on two of Gronkowski's touchdowns and was late to cover on the other one because he was reading Crumpler coming out of the backfield. On that score (which came with 9:54 left in the third quarter), Gronkowski was inline again, and pulled off a nice chip before releasing. The Pats will now use these inline releases from their tight ends to fool defenses on little out routes or flare patterns. As with Vick's record performance, Gronkowski's pace-setting day came with assists from the defense, but it's all about taking advantage. I like the way New England gains the advantage with different route combinations out of power formations. Gradually, you start to see the new offense come together.
47 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2010, 10:20am by Jimmy