Quarterback Michael Vick is the face of the Atlanta Falcons, the Vikings opponent Sunday. He's the highlight reel that makes defenses reel.
The Atlanta offense is so much more than a flashy quarterback, but let's start there.
He has been judged as a star in the making, but he's also been dubbed as a poor passer. Either way, he is showing improvement in many areas.
"Decision-making I think might be the number one thing, and I think that has to do with being in the system for another year, having gone through another offseason," Falcons coach Jim Mora said. "I think that is a big component in being a top-quality quarterback is decision-making. I think he has expanded his view of what our pass concepts are. He understands more about where people are going to be based upon coverage that he is seeing. I think that it is becoming a little bit more second nature for him now to call a play and get out of the huddle and understand where everyone is going to be. Yet he's nowhere close to where he is going to be."
The "poor passer" judgments some have placed on Vick might stem from the statistics that show his passer rating at 77.6 this season, along with only throwing three touchdowns versus two interceptions in three games. But for defenders to know Vick is to fear him.
Vick is averaging nine rushes per game and 6.9 yards per carry, but the fact that he is so elusive doesn't matter to cornerback Fred Smoot. Vick's arm matters much more to Smoot, who plans to respect the wing of the Falcon.
"You can never leave your man," Smoot said in defending Vick on the run. "There are some quarterbacks who run where you can kind of leave your man and play the run. You can never leave your man with him. I always have to keep my eye (on the receiver) because he'll roll out and I think he's running and he'll throw the ball 60 yards. He's got a real strong arm. I've got to really just plaster my man this week."
Cornerback Ralph Brown, who will be seeing extensive action in a depleted defensive backfield, agrees with Smoot's assessment on how a defensive back has to approach the Falcons.
"I just have to trust that the front seven guys are going to do their job. I can't worry about Michael Vick running. … I try not to get caught up on things I've got no control over when I'm doing something else," Brown said.
Mora said there hasn't been a game plan that has consistently stopped Vick – at least the total package that is Vick and the Falcons. After all, he is averaging only 148.7 yards passing per game and has been sacked seven times.
"Everybody always said he wasn't a good passer," Smoot said. "He is a good passer, but the team is a running team. He gets 17 to 20 chances a game to throw the ball. He's never going to have 400-yard passing games."
It is the running game that makes the Falcons go.
Amazingly, Atlanta is averaging far more yards on the ground than they are via the air – 183.7 net rushing yards to 131.3 net passing yards (which takes into account sacks).
"It's kind of like high school numbers, you know, a lot of rushing yards and no passing yards," Mora said. "I think we just function well as a team. We've played pretty good defense. We are solid on special teams. We're able to run the ball most of the time. We've made some throws for some yards when we needed to make them. You're not going to see a whole lot of 300-plus yard passing games out of this offense right now. Maybe down the road you will as we grow into it, but so many of our guys are young and not necessarily that they are young, but that they are young in this system and they are still learning what to do."
The Vikings appear more concerned with the running game of Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett.
"Where they are very good and explosive in the running game is the runs of over 12 yards," Tice said. "It is very hard to win the game when you are not running the ball explosively. … But they are running the ball explosively so we have to make sure that we have hats in all the holes and we have more than one guy to the football and that we can stop that running game."
Dunn and Duckett are that clichéd thunder and lightning duo. Dunn is the quicker back who creates with a quick step, but he is also the workhorse between the two of them.
Dunn has 52 carries for 268 yards while Duckett, the big downhill runner, has 24 carries for 108 yards. Vick is the only other Falcon to have carried the ball, and he has more rushes than Duckett. Amazingly, all three of them are averaging over 4.4 yards per carry. Collectively, they are averaging 5.3 yards per carry and giving the Falcons that 183.7 yards net rushing per game.
And then there are the receivers. Michael Jenkins is an emerging wideout and the Falcons' top deep threat. He's averaging 18.8 yards per catch.
"(He's) a long strider. He's their deep threat. He's got nice hands, adequate speed," Smoot said.
But most of the Vikings felt tight end Alge Crumpler is the key to the Falcons passing game. In three games, Crumpler has 142 yards receiving. He is second in yards and receptions.
"He's big, quick, fast, strong, he's got great hands, he plays the ball well in the air and he's a very good blocker," Tice, a former NFL tight end, said of Crumpler. "He is one of the better tight ends in the National Football League. He is one of the top players at his position. The quarterback has great confidence in going to him with the football. He's an excellent player."
Teams have tried many different tactics in trying to stop the Falcons' attack. The Vikings feel like they want to force Atlanta to throw the ball by stopping it's running game.
Last week, Buffalo blitzed the Falcons incessantly – 85 percent of the time, according to Mora.
"They brought an extra player other than the front four 85 percent of the time," he said. "So at least we got through a game without a sack against a heavy pressure team. If the Vikings do decide to blitz, then that ought to help us a little bit. We've still got to execute and pick up the stuff that they come up with. But if they do, they do, if they don't, they don't. It's hard to tell. I would say with the way those two corners are playing and the aggressive nature of a guy like Ted (Cottrell), I wouldn't be surprised at all if they brought it at us a bit."
Most teams blitz the Falcons about half that much, Mora said, but so far more teams than not haven't had success against Atlanta the last two years. In 2004, the Falcons were 11-5, won the NFC South and went to the NFC Championship game before losing 27-10 in Philadelphia. This year, they are 2-1 and need a win to keep pace with the 3-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their division.
The Vikings will be another team in a line of them trying to decide how to stop the complicated combination of Vick, Dunn, Duckett, Crumpler, Jenkins, et al.
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