Vick Will Test Vikings' New Defense

The last time the Vikings played against Michael Vick, the slippery quarterback was rushing for 173 yards, the last 46 of that coming on an overtime touchdown run. This time, he won't play more than the first half and the Vikings are hoping their improved defense can contain him.

Early in 2003, the Atlanta Falcons were preparing for what they believed would be a Super Bowl run. Fresh off a playoff road win over the Packers, the Falcons and their fans were flying high and looking to the horizon of what the 2003 season could offer. That ended with the snap of Michael Vick's leg and led the Falcons to an awful 2003 season that resulted in the firing of coach Dan Reeves and hiring of Jim Mora Jr. The good news for Falcons fans is that Mora wants to implement a West Coast Offense featuring Vick's amazing talents. The bad news is he still has the Gulf Coast Defense — arguably one of the worst in the NFL.

Everything about Atlanta starts and ends with Vick. An incredible playmaker with his arm and his legs, Vick can throw like Daunte Culpepper and run like Randy Moss. Even without a strong supporting cast in 2002, Vick was able to make enough big plays to win games. Backup Ty Detmer and rookie Matt Schaub will see action in the preseason, but Falcons fans pray that's the extent of it. Vick is the man and, if healthy, makes Atlanta dangerous.

The running game has gone through its own set of machinations in recent years. When Vick was healthy in 2002, Warrick Dunn was the primary threat out of the backfield. His ability to catch passes and turn any play into a long gain made him the primary weapon out of the backfield. Last year, bruising back T.J. Duckett took over most of the workload. This time around, don't be surprised to see a Thunder and Lightning backfield in which both get used. Depth is thin, however, with second-year pro Justin Griffith expected to start at fullback, and help behind Dunn and Duckett is limited to James Fenderson and rookie Quincy Wilson.

The receiver corps is the biggest change Vick has seen since the playoff run of 2002. Last year, the team brought in Peerless Price to take the No. 1 job away from possession receiver Brian Finneran. This year, they drafted Michael Jenkins with the 29th pick of the first round to give Vick another weapon. A quiet but key addition could be former Bear Dez White. He gives the team another speedy threat and critical depth that will be needed. Why? The rest of the wide receivers are a mixed bag of inexperience, with second-year man Terrence Edwards and third-year pro Woody Dantzler.

Tight end isn't a question. Alge Crumpler has become one of top playmaking tight ends and is one of Vick's favorite red zone targets. Former Viking Hunter Goodwin retired, so the backup duties fall to Justin Swift, in his fifth year in the NFL.

Blocking is a key issue for the Falcons offensive line, which struggled badly at times last year. Mora brought in Alex Gibbs, who masterminded the consistently good offensive lines for the Broncos, but he doesn't have a load of talent to work with. The line is anchored by center Todd McClure, who isn't dominant but does enough things right to remain a starter. Left tackle is a problem. Bob Whitfield is at the end of the line, but youngster Kevin Shaffer might not be ready to assume the starting role. The preseason will tell Gibbs that. At left guard, Eric Beverly and Steve Herndon have flip-flopped on the depth chart. The best news for Atlanta is that the right side — Vick's blind side — is solid with guard Kynan Forney and Todd Weiner, who both started all 16 games together last year.

While the good news is on offense, the flip side is true of the defense. The Falcons were last in the league in total defense and passing defense, 30th in scoring defense and 29th in rush defense. As you would expect, the problems start up front. The Falcons have switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which should benefit DE Patrick Kerney. Aside from Kerney, that talent drops off fast. Free agent Rod Coleman is looking for a new start next to Kerney on the left side, but the right side is admittedly weak with oft-injured Ed Jasper at tackle and Brady Smith and Will Overstreet sharing time at right end.

The change in defense will also affect Keith Brooking, the Falcons' best defensive player. After playing inside in the 3-4, he moves outside this season — opening up opportunities for him to chase down plays. Manning the middle is sixth-year pro Chris Draft and former Ram Jamie Duncan. On the other side, Matt Stewart is likely to win the job because of his relentless pursuit. With all of the assignments from previous years changing with the alignment switch, there will be mistakes made — something the Vikings will have to take advantage of when they happen.

The biggest change should be in the secondary, where the Falcons upgraded big-time with the addition of DeAngelo Hall with the eighth pick in this year's draft. Hall has the tag of being an immediate shutdown corner who can take away a team's top receiver. This position was so important to Mora that not only did he draft Hall, he went out in free agency and snapped up veterans Aaron Beasley and Jason Webster. Throw in returnees Kevin Mathis and Tod McBride and suddenly the Falcons have more depth than many thought possible when all four starters were benched simultaneously last year. At safety, Bryan Scott was a nice surprise as a rookie last year and turned a lot of heads. The jury is still out on free safety Cory Hall, who hasn't shown the consistency needed to be a starter. Depth is thin, with rookie Etric Pruitt battling Kevin McCadam for the top backup position.

The Falcons, like the Cardinals in the preseason opener, are headed in a new direction under a new coach, which makes winning early a priority. Whereas the Vikings know where they're heading, the Falcons are trying to make an impression on the new coaching staff and, with this game being their preseason home opener, don't expect the going to be easy for the Vikings.


KEY MATCHUP
MICHAEL VICK vs. E.J. HENDERSON —
The only time Vikings fans had an opportunity to see Michael Vick in person, he had 173 yards. Not total yards – he had 173 yards passing and 173 yards rushing in a 30-24 overtime win that ended when Vick ran 46 yards untouched for a TD. The Vikings didn't contain Vick and they saw what carnage he could create.

In that game, aging Greg Biekert was asked to "spy" Vick – stay with him wherever he went to cut off running lanes. Obviously that plan didn't work. Now the task falls on E.J. Henderson. While his opportunity to get at Vick likely will be limited to just two or three series, it will be a strong early test for the second-year linebacker who is being asked to take over the role of quarterback of the defense.

Henderson still has a chip on his shoulder for not being taken earlier on draft day in 2003 and is prepared to show the league — especially those teams in the second half of the first round — that it was a mistake to bypass him in April 2003. But, his ascent to the starting lineup will be a test under fire when dealing with Vick.

Vick's ability to make big plays, especially big plays out of nothing when the pass defense has done it's job, is what has made him such a great player. The Vikings expect to bring a big pass rush to keep Vick from getting in a comfort zone, but with blitzes and stunts come the opportunity for a quarterback to improvise. That isn't something the Vikings necessarily want, but something they will try to create with a bull rush up the middle.

When that happens, it will be Henderson's job to keep Vick from getting upfield and preventing the kind of runs that beat the Vikings the only other time they got an up-close look at No. 7.

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