What Happened To Vick And the Deep Ball?

In the last three weeks, the Eagles have tried to tweak their offense.

They’ve been more balanced. They’ve given Michael Vick options against the blitz. And he’s tried to get rid of the ball quicker.

The good news? Vick’s completing 63.2 percent of his passes in the last three. Against the blitz, even better: 28-for-42 (66.7 percent) for 398 yards (9.5 YPA).

The bad news? The Eagles still only averaged 18.7 points per game in those outings.

One thing we’re not seeing as much of is explosive plays in the passing game. Vick is averaging 7.1 yards per attempt. That number was 7.8 in 2011 and 8.1 in 2010. And according to Pro Football Focus, he is averaging one completion that travels at least 20 yards downfield every 25.7 attempts. It was one every 17.6 attempts last season.

So, what are the issues? Vick still has a big-time arm. The Eagles still have an outstanding vertical downfield threat in DeSean Jackson and other options like Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek. Why haven’t they hit on more big plays?

The way I see it, there are three factors. Let’s knock them out, one-by-one.

1. The Eagles are throwing the ball downfield less.

This one really doesn’t require much explanation. As I mentioned up top, the Eagles are giving Vick shorter throws to work with to help against pressure, and that part has worked. According to PFF, 11.7 percent of Vick’s throws have traveled 20 yards or more downfield. Last year, that number was 13.7 percent. In 2010, it was 15.9 percent. So there’s certainly been a dropoff, although the Eagles haven’t abandoned the deep ball completely.

2. Pass protection hasn’t been good enough.

This is a big one, and an obvious one. With no Jason Peters and no Jason Kelce, the Eagles have had trouble giving Vick enough time to hit on big plays downfield. As a result, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have adjusted and will often use extra protection on the “shot” plays. They’ve had success with that strategy at times.

For example, check out the blocking on the touchdown pass to Jackson against the Giants:

The Giants rushed seven, but the Eagles kept eight in to block and gave Vick a clean pocket.

Against the Steelers:

The Eagles again keep eight players in to block. Even though it’s a 2-WR vs. 5-DB matchup in favor of the defense, Jackson gets open for a big 24-yard completion.

The problem is that pass protection has been so shaky that the numbers game up front has not always guaranteed a clean pocket for Vick. Here’s a look at one play from the final drive against the Lions.

The Eagles have seven to block four, but even that’s not enough as Nick Fairley pressures Vick, who ends up taking a sack.

These issues manifest themselves on plays where Vick doesn’t get hit also. Because protection has been so shaky and he’s been eager to get rid of the ball and make decisions quickly, he’s missing plays downfield. Here’s an example against the Giants:

Maclin is wide open streaking down the sideline, but Vick takes off and runs.

Against the Steelers, he had Clay Harbor with a step on a linebacker and no safety deep.

Here, instead of pulling the trigger, Vick took off and ran, fumbling in the process.

To be fair, it’s tough to expect a quarterback to trust his protection when it so often lets him down. But you can see how the Eagles are missing opportunities.

3. Vick has been inaccurate with deep passes.

According to PFF, Vick was on-target with 51.7 percent of his “deep” passes last year – the ones that traveled at least 20 yards downfield and were either caught or incomplete because of a drop. This year? That number is just 33.3 percent. Even when he’s making good decisions and targeting open receivers downfield, he’s not always making good throws.

Examples from last week:

A ball thrown to the middle of the field likely results in an 80-yard touchdown to Jackson. But here’s where the pass ends up:

Vick said the wind took this one, but there were others. Jason Avant open in the middle of the field:

The throw is behind him.

Given that the Eagles aren’t taking as many shots downfield, it’s imperative that they hit when given the opportunity.

You’ll notice I didn’t list wide-receiver drops as an issue. Jackson, who’s had issues with drops in the past, has zero drops on the season. And as a team, the Eagles have not dropped a single “deep” pass all season, per PFF.

So there you have it. The Eagles’ lack of big plays has little to do with opposing defenses, play-calling or the receivers. It has everything to do with the protection and the quarterback.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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