The Cardinals find ways to scheme against Shaun Alexander. They’ll prepare for Larry Johnson, and they’ll deal with LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Owens. But this week is the only time they’ll have rules, because this week, the Cards face Michael Vick.
“The Michael Vick Rules are so crucial you have to name them, and everyone on our team knows — it’s almost like the code,” coach Dennis Green said. “The other guy we had to do that with was Barry Sanders.”
The specifics of the Michael Vick Rules are under wraps for obvious reasons. But the 2004 version of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s rules smothered Vick through most of what turned into a 6-3 loss in Atlanta.
In that game, Vick had just 115 yards passing and an interception, completing 10 of 20 passes. Prior to a game-sealing 58-yard reverse bootleg with a little more than two minutes left, Vick had just 10 yards rushing on eight previous carries.
Much has changed since that game two seasons ago. Pendergast said the Cards’ defense is more flexible and has a more developed playbook. Vick said he is much more comfortable in Atlanta coach Jim Mora’s West Coast offense, since he was just playing his third game under Mora at the time.
But that was the first time Pendergast’s penchant for creative scheming — the Cards’ used five defensive linemen at times and played a lot of zone — came to the forefront.
Upon hearing the Cardinals have “rules” for him, Vick called it a “great compliment.”
“When any team has their own set of rules for you it means you are a factor in the game and you can be effective,” Vick said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Mora said it is always interesting to see what defenses have planned to try and slow Vick, especially from an innovator like Pendergast.
But part of the theme, said Cardinals linebacker Calvin Pace, is simple.
“He’s like any other offensive player,” Pace said. “No one likes to get hit. Hit him a couple times, give him a couple different looks, and make him beat you with his arm.”
The Falcons do have the NFL’s top rushing team. Running back Warrick Dunn made the Pro Bowl last season. But it is Vick who every defense gears for, a notion that Vick acknowledged does wear on him.
“I just realize the way I play, I’m always a threat,” Vick said. “I think it kind of helps us to a certain extent that they always got to game plan for me and there is always another guy (for us) that steps up and makes plays. So, at times, I like it. At times, it makes my job a little tougher.”
One of the ways the Falcons have tried to make Vick’s job easier is by adding a spread option to the offense, a play similar to one Vince Young killed teams with in college at Texas. Playing out of a shotgun, Vick takes the snap and has the choice to hand the ball to Warrick Dunn going one way or pulling it back and circling to the other side on a bootleg sweep.
Mora estimates the Falcons have only run the play “10 or 11 times” in three games, but it helped Vick run for 127 yards against Tampa Bay and lead Atlanta in rushing during its Monday night loss in New Orleans.
“We know we have to keep him in a small box,” said Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry, who was the one burned by Vick in his late-game bootleg two years ago. “We have to stay aggressive but make sure he doesn’t use that athletic ability against us, because I’m sure none of us can catch him in a footrace.”
The Falcons aren’t an offensive juggernaut. They’ve scored just 37 points, leaning on their defense to forge their 2-1 record.
But that isn’t going to influence the Cards’ defensive mindset.
“It is what it is: Michael Vick, most exciting player in the game,” Pace said. “It’s just like Michael Jordan. You can’t stop him completely. You try to contain him, and when the day is over, hopefully he doesn’t have 100 yards rushing.”
Added Green, “He’s still the guy no one wants to play.”