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?
22 Sep 2010
by Doug Farrar
As he so often does both on and off the field, Michael Vick has changed the coverage. We've moved from Cover-3 to Cover-2 this week in order to put down some exclusive analysis of the late-breaking Vick decision. We'll be back with more of a single-high safety look next week.
The last time I wrote about Ndamukong Suh, he was destroying Texas' entire offense in the Big 12 Championship, beating the crap out of Colt McCoy, and ensuring his status as a top-three draft pick. Since then, he has integrated with the Detroit Lions team that picked him second overall,= and bonded with some people who could help him take the next step -- head coach Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, and veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. At the Nike 7-on-7 tournament in July, I talked with Suh about the new learning process.
"I've been really close with Coach Cunningham, and it's been a lot of fun to learn from him," Suh said. "He's a great defensive guru, great defensive line coach. And I have another great coach in [defensive line coach Kris] Kocurek, who's young and used to play (he was a seventh-round pick of the Seahawks in 2001), and is now coming up in the coaching ranks very quickly. He understands what we need to get done, and he helps me out a lot. Just being able to bounce information off of them is tremendous ... it's definitely been a pleasure to work with Kyle. Learning from him, and with him being a Nebraska great, and the opportunity to just work out with him in the weight room. His work ethic is immaculate. Being able to learn the ropes with him is a great advantage for me. It's really a blessing."
After a preseason in which opposing offenses learned quickly that double-teaming him was the best way to avoid getting their quarterbacks killed, Suh picked up quarterback sacks in each of his first two regular season games. However, he did not get off to a great start against Philadelphia in Week 2 -- he was cut-blocked out of the first Eagles play (a five-yard run by LeSean McCoy) and drew an encroachment penalty the next time he lined up. In any early blocking scheme against Suh, the concept seemed to be to avoid taking him straight on. Instead, the Eagles' line worked to move him side to side and take away his forward momentum. He got a huge hit to his left side by right tackle Winston Justice on an 11-yard pass to Brent Celek from the Eagles' 29-yard line. The hit sent him pinballing across the line.
One thing that had me curious was that, for the first few plays, the Lions were not lining Suh up right next to Vanden Bosch, which prevented the defense from using the end-tackle stunts Vanden Bosch did so well with Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee. With 8:54 left in the first quarter and the Eagles on their own 40, the two finally lined up in the same side. The corresponding stunt put single protection on each defender after Celek left the line to run his route. Linebacker Julian Peterson, who had cheated up pre-snap, just missed a sack and got a roughing the passer call (blow to the helmet) for his trouble. The only thing I will say is that between that penalty and what happened to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday, I have no freaking idea what constitutes roughing the passer anymore. Judging from his reaction, neither did Schwartz.
The next play was the 45-yard Vick touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson, in which Suh got a great burst off the snap and used his hands to sift through a double team. For all the talk about his upper-body strength (which is incredible), Suh also has a great sense of fundamentals. Where he got locked up on that first five was with an inability to penetrate out of the three technique against those side blocks. Right guard Nick Cole and center Mike McGlynn aren't the most nimble fellows, but they were wide enough to come together and form a pretty solid wall that Suh found difficult to penetrate early on, especially on quick-developing pass plays or run plays away from him.
On the second drive, Suh started altering his tactics, engaging Cole and using rip-and-spin moves to get by him out of one-and three-tech looks. Those were devastating for Suh in college, and the increased competition level hasn't decreased their effectiveness. Suh started getting through the line and chasing Vick out of the pocket. He picked up his first half-tackle with 3:55 left in the first quarter, as McCoy tried to head left. Suh beat Cole to the inside, and headed left to help linebacker Zack Follett take McCoy down for a gain of one.
It was the first play of the second quarter that showed Suh's true potential in the game. Suh used his hands to get by Cole and McGlynn and ran right to trail Vick, who had bailed out of the pocket from his own 10-yard line on third-and 23. Suh caught up to Vick and pushed him out of bounds at the 22. In case you didn't catch that, I'll type it again: Suh caught up to Vick and pushed him out of bounds at the 22. I'm pretty sure 6-foot-4, 310-pound people are not supposed to be this fast. Again, a skill he displayed at the college level transferred smoothly.
Suh started to get more active throughout the second quarter, disengaging from a double team out of a wide three-tech to take Vick down with a nice downfield tackle with 5:16 left in the first half. In the third quarter, he showed that he can also blast off the line when shading the center, dropping Mike Bell for a loss of three yards early in the second half by getting around McGlynn's block. And on the second play of the Eagles' next possession, with 9:48 left in the quarter, Suh eradicated my sole concern about his game that was starting to pop up (the ability to take NFL linemen and beat them back head on) by engaging Cole, dipping to Cole's right, and getting around the guard for the sack.
It was always going to be difficult to write about Suh at his best in college, because describing what was actually happening sounded like the height of hyperbole. Explaining how he rag-dolled a 290-pound guard from a major college almost lost its luster after a while because it happened so often. But with his ability to take most aspects of his game so soon and so well to the highest level, Suh enters another realm where his actions and their effects are absolutely legitimate and without qualification. He's not going up against guys who will never make it in the NFL -- he's dealing with people whose experience at the pro level precede his, and he's already making some of them look pretty silly.
"A lot of people don't understand that when you're drafted so high, a lot of the time guys in that position have to come in and have to be 'The Man'," Suh told me in July. I don't have to come in and be 'The Man' on my team, especially on the defensive line. Because I have Kyle, and Corey Williams from Cleveland -- all veterans that have been in the game for years, and know what's going on. So I just have the luxury to come in and help them out, to help me out. I'm in a great situation."
I'll be revisiting Suh later in the season for two reasons. First, I want to see how he develops certain moves under the excellent tutelage of Schwartz and Cunningham. He does seem to lose power against bigger linemen when he's taking them head on, and I will be interested to see how he adjusts to that. The "turn-and-dip" on the sack was a very nice start. Second, Suh is just fun to watch, in the same way that any potentially dominant player is fun to watch early in his NFL career. You know you're seeing something special with Suh right now. You also know of the potential to see much more in the future. In a very uncertain business, this guy seems as sure a thing as there is.
The Friday night segments on SIRIUS NFL Radio with Adam Caplan and Jon Hansen should be required listening for any fantasy football junkie. When Greg Cosell, producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup and NFL Films game tape maven, jumps on for his spot to talk Xs and Os, the show is even more indispensable. Last season, I remember hearing Cosell make a startling prediction on that show that by the 2011 season, Michael Vick could very well be the Eagles' full-time starting quarterback. This was back when Vick was little more than a quick option whenever Philly's coaching staff wanted to get "creative" in a bad way. But as it turned out, Cosell was on point and ahead of just about everyone. With that in mind, I got him on the phone to find out what he thought of the team's decision to put the Kevin Kolb Evolution Project aside in favor of a guy who has been playing out of his mind so far this season.
What I've seen from Vick this season is a highly evolved version of the guy who used to run around the Georgia Dome and would sometimes resemble a traditional quarterback in just by his jersey number. The misplaced option quarterback wasn't a part of the new scheme. Now the Eagles' offense is about Vick being able to make consistent throws and running when the opportunity presented itself. There was a flash of this when he hit Celek deep over the middle early in the fourth quarter of Philadelphia's Week 1 loss to the Packers and another when he hit Jeremy Maclin at the end of that drive for a 19-yard touchdown. The Brent Celek pass was as pretty as it gets -- Vick dropped the deep ball to his tight end right on the money in the middle of three Green Bay defenders. And the Maclin pass was a low laser in the end zone. Those who are dismissing Vick's current standing as the result of a UFL-level Detroit defense should take a step back and watch what he did against 2009's fourth-best pass defense, and the second-best through two weeks in 2010.
After the decision was made, I tweeted that I believed the successful developmental project in Philadelphia wasn't Kolb -- it was Vick. Is it silly to say that a 30-year-old quarterback is a work in progress? Not under these circumstances, and Cosell agreed. He took it a step further by explaining his take on the roots of the decision.
"I believe this has more to do with Kevin Kolb than Michael Vick," Cosell said. "Kolb played so poorly through the preseason and in his first half of regular-season action, he almost could not compete -- you almost could not put him out there. I think that's why the decision was made. I was incredibly surprised at how poorly he played, because I went through his two starts last year, and I thought he looked like a poised, composed, decisive, accurate, aware quarterback. I had no qualms whatsoever in believing that Kolb would have a very solid season. But he looked like a rookie quarterback who was overwhelmed and overmatched."
As he so often does, Cosell put the situation most accurately in a single sentence: "Kolb was not getting a clear picture out there." To my less-informed eye, this had a great deal to do with the line's inability to pick up and adjust protections. I mentioned in the Suh portion of this article how the Eagles would sent Celek off line on plays that seemed as though they were designed to develop over time, despite the fact that the Lions were altering their blitz concepts. On other occasions, Detroit defenders were able to slip through gaps in unusually easy ways. I think that Vick was seeing the picture because he'd seen these types of things before, while Kolb was not used to the breakdowns.
The story that's lost in all the controversy is how well the Eagles' coaching staff has prepared Vick to do the little things all great quarterbacks do, and how well they transitioned their expectations from the quarterback who was falling out of step to the guy with the hot hand. Was this the first time Vick has received functional NFL coaching? Cosell said that it was, and it showed against the Lions.
"I thought Vick played the best game of his NFL career," he said. "Michael Vick was not a great quarterback in Atlanta -- he was a SportsCenter quarterback. Nobody in the NFL is a great quarterback because of the way they run. And in this game, there were opportunities where he could have run in response to pressure, and he did not. Perhaps the best example I can remember was the third-and-9 play in the second quarter, where he spun away from an unblocked defender to his right as the defender came from his blind side. He actually stopped, set his feet, and threw the ball to Riley Cooper. I mean, that was NFL quarterbacking. There was space in front of him, and the old Vick would have run. That may have been the single most interesting play that spoke to the new Vick. I'm not one who likes to make bold judgments based on one game, but he played the position the way it needs to be played to be consistent in the NFL."
The throw to Cooper came with 6:08 left in the first half. The Eagles went shotgun, twins tight on either side. Cooper ran upfield from the top of the right flank, and Vick had to bail out almost immediately after the snap as cornerback Alphonso Smith shot off the right edge, completely unblocked. This wasn't a "stop-drop-and-roll" kind of thing; Vick escaped to his right and didn't run at all. He eluded that tackle and immediately went back to reading his progressions. When I saw this, I understood why Cosell was so impressed.
The play that convinced me I was seeing a different Vick was the long sideline pass to Jackson with 9:21 left in the third quarter. This play was impressive because Vick escaped pressure after yet another protection breakdown and kept his eyes downfield while he was running. He saw Jackson open about 20 yards downfield, and he made the accurate throw.
"That's a critical element here," Cosell said. "Now, he's moving to pass, and not moving to run. That's a very important distinction. Even the long throw to Jackson on the two-minute drive, where he also stopped ... he had to get rid of that ball a little quicker because of pressure, but he still stopped and set his feet. That was a big-time throw, as well. Even the touchdown to Jeremy Maclin -- if I'm not mistaken, that was a zero-coverage blitz, and there was pressure he could see coming up the middle. But he stood in there and stepped into this throw. When have we ever said before that Michael Vick would look down the gun barrel and make throws?"
We haven't, and that's precisely because Vick was never asked to before. It was always my impression that, whatever they might say to the contrary, then-Falcons head coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp were rolling out game plans that could have been written on bar napkins and asking Vick to make up the difference. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have taken the more balanced and evolutionary approach. While I would absolutely agree with those who see potential landmines all over the actual decision-making process, I can't do anything but praise the way the team has prepared Vick for this unexpected (to everyone but Cosell, apparently) second chance.
Programming note: The Vick news and subsequent analysis impacted my ability to analyze the Indianapolis Colts' defense against the New York Giants. I wanted to get a sense of how Indy adjusted to the historic day they allowed Houston Texans running back Arian Foster to put up in the season opener, but there wasn't time. I did talk to Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers about the two games earlier this week, and there's enough good stuff there to save for next week's Cover-3 after the Colts have taken on the Jacksonville Jaguars. So, stay tuned for that, as well as an update from another young pass defender who's finally starting to get the recognition he deserves.
61 comments, Last at 04 Oct 2010, 4:15am by ThomasL