Go back to 2004. Week 2. The Vikings came to The Linc for a big Monday Night Football game. How would the Eagles slow down Minnesota's dynamic offense? Jim Johnson put together an elaborate gameplan. He had Lito Sheppard shadow Randy Moss all over the field. Jevon Kearse played a lot at the Joker position and that hurt Daunte Culpepper's ability to run. The Vikings moved the ball, but only scored 16 points. Culpepper was picked off and fumbled.
Think about 2007. Jim Johnson was again charged with stopping a dynamic offense. This time it was the Patriots, also with Randy Moss. Johnson did all kinds of creative things. That is the first time I remember sliding Juqua Parker into defensive tackle. Chris Gocong played end in some sets. Kearse got snaps at end and tackle. J.R. Reed filled in for Brian Dawkins. He lined up 20 yards off the line. The bizarre gameplan didn't stop the Patriots, but it did slow them down at times.
Think about the glorious win in the 2004 NFC title game against Mike Vick, when he was a Falcon. Johnson moved Kearse to right end and had Derrick Burgess play the left side. Kearse was able to keep Vick from rolling to his left, where he's most comfortable. That forced Vick to his right and Burgess ended up with a pair of sacks.
Over the years we've seen some interesting and elaborate gameplans. We're still seeing them in 2010, but the difference is that they're being done to the Eagles. Call it the Mike Vick Effect. Teams know they don't have a lot of hope against him playing standard defense. They throw out the normal playbook and come up with some new and original wrinkles.
The Giants unleashed a three safety look where Antrel Rolle was basically a linebacker. Rolle attacked off the edge, over and over. He was very disruptive in both games against the Giants. Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg, and Mike Vick had no way to truly prepare for this the first time around. The Giants came up with something new. The Giants added some twists for the rematch and had success then as well. The Eagles managed to win both games because they were able to burn the elaborate blitz schemes.
The Vikings came to town on Tuesday with 2.5 sacks all year from non-defensive linemen. They got three in Tuesday's win. Minnesota is known as a team that relies on their front four to pressure and their back seven to cover. They mix in some blitzes, but it isn't a primary part of their identity. The Vikings coaching staff did a great job of building a gameplan that would catch the Eagles off guard. They sent their best cover corner off the edge as a blitzer. That takes guts.
Minnesota's secondary has struggled all year. Winfield is a good cover guy on short and intermediate routes, but lacks the top end speed to be as good downfield. I assumed the Eagles would attack him deep. The Vikings made the same assumption and decided to flip that notion on its head. Blitz Winfield, something he can do well, and use some other corner to cover deep. That is a simple strategy, but brilliant in its own way. No Minnesota defensive back had the speed to stick with the Eagles receivers. To counter that, build the gameplan around pressure rather than coverage. That is an excellent use of resources.
While I'm sitting here praising the Vikings strategy, it was a gamble. Vick and the offense burned the Giants for big plays and touchdowns. Those games were wins. Against Minnesota the big plays never came. DeSean Jackson was open twice for long touchdown passes. Vick was too long on the first and then off target on the second. Those plays came in the first half. If Vick connects and the Eagles build a 14-0 lead, there is a real good chance that the Vikings get down and the Eagles win the game.
When teams blitz and get creative, you must make them pay. Not only did the Eagles fail to do that, Vick fumbled late in the half and Winfield returned it for a touchdown, the Vikings first score of the game. The explosive Eagle attack was stopped with regularity and essentially created a touchdown for each side in the first half. When stuff like that happens, you're going to struggle and possibly lose.
When the playoffs start in a week, the Eagles need to be prepared for the unexpected. We don't know what team will be traveling to Philly yet, but unfortunately it will probably be a group that plays good defense. I personally requested that the Texans be the first opponent, but the commissioner's office said they'd get back to me in a couple of months. I'm taking that as a no.
At this point, I'm not sure what "the unexpected" is anymore. The coaches will study hours of tape and then have to guess what might happen. That makes preparation all the more difficult, but not impossible. One of the key things to do now is identify the best blitzer in the secondary and plan on how to stop him.
Blitzing is never foolproof or completely safe. Buddy Ryan very much believed in blitzing, despite the risky nature of it. Guys will be open. The problem is that the quarterback needs time to find the receiver and get the ball out. That's where Buddy and his players made things so difficult. They got to the quarterback.
The bottom line to all of this is that Vick and the offense must capitalize on chances for big plays. You only get so many chances in each game when things are going to work correctly. Most of this year Vick has been masterful at making teams pay. He's hit Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, and others for big gains. Vick has sometimes taken off running and delivered big plays. Shady McCoy has made his share of big plays, both on runs and screen passes.
In the postseason, the Eagles will be tested by good defenses and elaborate schemes. Teams will blitz Vick all day long. It is up to the coaches to come up with a good plan. It is up to the offensive line and other blockers to give Vick some time. It is up to the skill players to make plays when the ball does come their way. Finally, it is up to Vick to make his magic. He will be the difference in whether this team is one and done or goes to the NFC title game or even, dare I say, the last game with all the crazy commercials and big parties. Don't say the words.
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As miserable as Tuesday night was, it does have some upside. The Eagles are going to rest some players this week. Many fans assumed that the Bears would lose on Sunday, opening the way for the Eagles to get the #2 seed. There was no guarantee that would happen. It is possible the Eagles could have gone all out to be Minny and Dallas, only to find themselves playing the next week anyway. I'm not happy that they lost to the Vikings, but there is a silver lining to the cloud. Vick needs rest, as do a couple of other select veterans. Plus, the team gets a chance to see what Kevin Kolb can do against the Dallas Cowboys. Sunday will be interesting.