IT WAS LIKE this with Donovan McNabb, back when. Teams didn't know how to defend him and all of the obstacles he presented, so they came with variety in place of conviction. There would be a dose of this and a handful of that, but most of all there would be this on-and-off preoccupation with assigning somebody to make sure McNabb didn't run the ball down their gullet.
Now it is like that with Michael Vick. We are seeing it again. Years later, the spy has come in from the cold.
"Well, there are all different forms of spying," said Marty Mornhinweg, the Eagles' offensive coordinator. "You do it so many different ways. He's got a little bit of it. He's got a little bit of it. Very difficult with Mike, though. It's a very difficult thing to go about your plan of attack on Mike, because he's so talented."
Every defensive team will play to its strengths. It is really hard for a defense to change its personality completely and still remain authentic to its own players - and most will go only so far. Still, Vick has now identified himself in only four starts this season as the kind of soul-crushing player that McNabb was earlier in his career, enough of a threat with both his arm and his legs that some extra-special things need to be attempted.
Mornhinweg was talking the other day, in the time leading up to the Eagles-Redskins game tonight at FedEx Field. Forget the irony of 2010: that Vick (the hard-to-defense multiweapon) will be playing against McNabb (the recently benched former multiweapon). Mornhinweg was asked if he believed there yet existed a book on Vick, an accepted way to attempt to defend against his variety of skills.
"I don't," he said. "Because with really good quarterbacks, each [defensive] team has a combination of things: your personnel, their personnel, schematically what you're built for, where your best pass rush is, where your best corner is, what type of coverages you play best . . .
"All of those things come into play. But one thing I will say is, when you have a quarterback like Mike, people tend to play you differently every week."
Mornhinweg has been around long enough that he brings up two names when you begin this discussion: Brett Favre and Steve Young. Mornhinweg worked with both of them as an assistant coach, in Green Bay and San Francisco, and he says there were teams that treated those two as fantastic anomalies that required innovative, specialized strategies.
Or, as Mornhinweg said, "You would watch 8 weeks of film and then they would come with something they had never done before . . .
And with a guy like Mike, you will see different things than you have seen on film against other teams."
Now, what they are starting to come with is the spy, the player whose job is to mirror Vick as he roams around in his pocket and to present an impediment to Vick taking off and running. The problems with using a spy are obvious: first, that the defender you use to watch Vick isn't watching a receiver, and second, that there aren't a whole lot of guys who can catch Vick once he starts running - so what's the point?
In the first Eagles-Redskins game - the game in which Vick was knocked out of the game after only a quarter - Washington did not blitz Vick as Detroit and Jacksonville had done. Instead, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has acknowledged that his plan was to spy Vick; it appears he used safety LaRon Landry at least part of the time. Now Haslett is downplaying the possibility for tonight - which is when we'll see.
But you saw a little of the spying business last week against Indianapolis, too. At least a couple of times, Colts linebacker Pat Angerer seemed to be sitting in that no-man's land with nothing to do but let Vick know that the middle was not wide-open. It probably worked a little, but only a little. A couple of times, the Colts got caught overloading a blitz on one side and Vick made them pay.
All of which means what for this week? The point is, we don't really know for sure. But as long as the Eagles' offensive line struggles, there will be fewer receivers out running routes and more kept in to help with the blocking - which makes the whole spying thing an easier decision for a defense to make.
So as long as that is the case, and as long as Vick's legs remain such a weapon, you can expect defenses dreamed up by le Carré: more spies and more disguises. *
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