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Monday, November 22, 2010
No foolproof way to neutralize Vick

By Michael Wright
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears safety Chris Harris saw the play, knowing he could easily wind up in the same predicament.

Redskins safety LaRon Landry took a quick step forward, then backpedaled quickly after Eagles quarterback Michael Vick carried out a play-action fake right, and rolled the opposite direction. In the fraction of a second it took Landry to come out of his backpedal to turn and run with DeSean Jackson, the ball was out of Vick's hand and sailing over the safety's head.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick burned the Redskins for an 88-yard touchdown on the first play of their Week 10 showdown.

Touchdown, Eagles, 88 yards on the first play from scrimmage of the game.

The display -- which served as first salvo in Philadelphia detonating a 59-28 explosion last Monday -- typified just one of many split-second decision-making scenarios presented opposing defenses by Vick and his offensive weaponry. How the Bears handle such a challenge Sunday when they host Philadelphia determines whether the club maintains its winning streak, while proving the defense's mettle as one of the NFL's best.

"We've been talking about it already," Harris said. "We've got to make sure we stay deep, in Cover 2 especially. We've got to get back, and not come up until you know for sure that it's a run or that he's broken the line of scrimmage. Man, with a guy like DeSean Jackson, when you see him building up [speed] you've got to open up [and run], man. You've got to go. We play Cover 2, so our job as safeties is to be as deep as the deepest, and not let anything behind us. Up to this point in the season, we've done a good job of that."

Yet none of the quarterbacks the Bears have faced is playing at Vick's current level with such a dangerous cast surrounding him, including big-play receivers Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and elusive running back LeSean McCoy. While it's important to note that Vick owns a winless (0-2) record as a starter against Chicago, it's equally paramount to mention the quarterback isn't the same player who lost twice as a starter (three times in all) to the Bears from 2001 to 2005 as an Atlanta Falcon.

In seven starts this season, Vick has a 5-2 record. (He left the first quarter of a Week 4 loss to the Redskins because of chest and rib injuries.) Interestingly, though, he's 4-0 against teams employing 4-3 defenses -- like the Bears, who rely heavily on Cover 2 -- having completed 64.8 percent of his passes against those teams for 1,051 yards and six touchdowns, in addition to rushing for 175 yards on 33 carries.

Against Indianapolis, which is more similar to the Bears schematically than the other three 4-3 teams he's faced, Vick completed just 58.6 percent of his passes, and suffered three sacks, but ran for 74 yards and a touchdown, in addition to passing for another TD.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Chicago coach Lovie Smith says Vick hasn't changed from the quarterback who has thrown for only one touchdown and two interceptions in three losses (two as a starter) to the Bears. Prior to a dismal showing against the Bears in 2005 (25.8 passer rating, two interceptions), Vick posted passer ratings of 89.3 or better in two previous meetings against the club and hadn't thrown an interception.

"We've played Michael Vick before," Smith said. "He's a great player. We normally do what we do with our defense. We don't change up what we do. We believe in our defense and it's set up to play. We give him all the respect in the world. Defending him is a little bit different than most because of his ability to run. That can cause some problems, too, when you put your quarterback at risk of taking so many hits."

Perhaps that's why the New York Giants employed tactics Sunday night designed to subject Vick to as much contact as possible. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants blitzed Vick with a defensive back on 20 pass plays, forcing the quarterback to scramble twice.

When the Giants sent a defensive back, Vick completed just 6 of 16 passes for 66 yards, in addition to suffering two sacks. When New York elected not to pressure from the secondary, the quarterback completed 18 of 22 passes for 192 yards.

So although the Giants' pressure tactics worked on Vick, ultimately, the Eagles still won the game, raising the question as to whether there's really a foolproof way to neutralize the quarterback.

"We didn't see nothing that he can't do [on film]," Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. "So we're aware of everything he brings to that team. But like Coach harps on, we can't really worry about what they do. We just have to worry about what we do, and try to contain him as much as we can."

It won't come easy.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick, then a backup, took some snaps when the Eagles defeated the Bears at Soldier Field last season.

Teams have utilized several methods for slowing down Vick this season with varying degrees of success. The 4-3 teams facing Vick averaged 3.5 sacks against the quarterback, yet lost every matchup. The 3-4 teams, meanwhile, averaged a little more than a sack in three meetings against Vick, but posted a 2-1 record against him.

Not wanting to let the quarterback set up in the pocket -- where he's thrashed opponents this season -- the Giants pressured Vick with defensive backs, and attempted to force him to the right side whenever he scrambled. Because Vick is left-handed, the Giants figured the quarterback would be more apt to throw on the move headed left as opposed to the right, where he'd have to stop and set his feet to put velocity on a throw.

Vick scrambled out of the pocket for eight of his 47 dropbacks against the Giants, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He rolled left five times, scrambling once for a 5-yard gain, in addition to completing 2 of 4 passes for 18 yards and a first down. The three times Vick scrambled right, the quarterback gained 13 yards, no first downs, and never attempted a pass.

Don't think for a second the Bears haven't noticed.

"We've got to be disciplined this week," Bears safety Danieal Manning said. "They're not going to deter from what they do, and we're not going to deter from what we do."

So the Bears aren't likely to throw together nifty wrinkles this week to stop Vick -- although it might be wise to spy the quarterback with a speedy linebacker such as Brian Urlacher. In three meetings against Vick and the Atlanta Falcons, Urlacher sacked the quarterback three times and registered 35 tackles.

Tampa Bay enjoyed similar success spying Vick with a fleet-footed linebacker, the recently retired Derrick Brooks. The Buccaneers posted a 5-4 record against the Vick-led Falcons with the quarterback throwing for more than 300 yards only once -- and never more than 161 yards in any other contest against them -- and breaking the 100-yard mark rushing only once (he rushed for 39 yards or fewer in five contests).

It's believed the best way to defend Vick is to keep the safeties deep to eliminate big plays from Philadelphia's receivers, which would force the quarterback to settle for shorter gains in the passing game. That's already one of the basic tenets of Chicago's defensive system. But Vick has proved capable of defeating that philosophy, too, judging from the fact that 10 of Philadelphia's 27 points on Sunday night came on drives of 13 plays or more.

In the past, teams defended Vick by forcing him to beat them with his arm, while bracing for the inevitable lumps they'd take whenever the quarterback broke outside contain by scrambling. But against the new Vick, teams are using new methods to defend him, such as mixing pressure from zone and man coverage on early downs to force him to make quick decisions with the ball, as opposed to sitting back in coverage waiting for the quarterback to make a mistake.

"Yeah, Mike Vick, you can't take nothing from him," Manning said. "I'm pretty sure some of those defenders that have played him are saying, 'Man, I should've stayed in this position or that position' or saying, 'Some of that is on me, and some of that is on Mike Vick.' So this is gonna be a good game, a great matchup. That's why [the NFL] moved it to [3:15 p.m.], too."

Michael Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.