Are the Packers the Pick?

With the defense shaky and Vick cooling off, things don't necessarily look good for the Eagles

Ever since the Eagles lost to Mighty Joe Webb and the Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday Night Football, many were focused on the specter of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ upcoming strafing of the generous Eagle secondary — provided the playoff picture came into focus as we all believed it would. Now that Green Bay has earned a spot, most deliciously at the expense of the hapless Giants, Rodgers, the third-rated passer in the NFL, can take aim at a secondary that surrendered the third-most TD passes in the league. [SIGNUP]

It should be a bonanza for the Pack. Just imagine Greg Jennings loose behind Joselio Hanson, Dmitri Patterson or whatever other unlucky defender gets to check him. Or Donald Driver’s snaring any ball within arm’s reach. It’s a scary thought, one that will no doubt haunt Eagles fans all week. Should it come to, ahem, pass its effects will linger until whenever NFL owners decide its time to break the players union and start the 2011 season.

Obsessing over the Packers’ passing attack is a worthy way to spend the days leading up to the game, but Eagles fans should be worrying more about the Green Bay defense, which has been especially nasty during the second half of the season. The real fear for the Eagles is not so much Rodgers’ strong right arm, since just about every QB that has faced the Eagles and their generous pass D has thrived. The Packer defense is the biggest concern heading into Sunday’s wild-card game.

During the Birds’ final five games (not counting Sunday’s exhibition tilt against Dallas), two of which were losses and one of which featured a miracle comeback that snatched victory from almost certain doom, they have fought to maintain offensive consistency against a variety of creative schemes designed to reduce QB Michael Vick’s comfort level. The debacle against Minnesota proved that it is possible to flummox him, and Vick’s response to the Vikings’ blitz package was disconcerting, since it represented a return to the run-around style that made him an exciting but ultimately inconsistent player with Atlanta. A similarly creative -– not to mention violent -– approach by the Pack could produce a comparable response from Vick, whose last two games (save the magical final 7:30 against the Giants) have not been that inspiring.

In many ways, this is Vick’s first year as an NFL QB. Although he had a prosperous six-year run with the Falcons, he has been asked to play a completely different version of the position in Philadelphia. That has required a change in his throwing mechanics and a new approach to study and preparation. Despite tremendous strides, outstanding performances and undeniable progress, this new way of playing the position still hasn’t taken root completely, as one might expect. So, when times get tough, it’s natural for Vick to revert to some of the comfortable tendencies that characterized his time in Atlanta.

During the Eagles’ last two games, Vick has completed just 58.9 percent of his passes, below his season average of 62.4 percent and not acceptable in a league where 20 of the top 30 passers connected on at least 60 percent of their throws. Vick averaged just 6.5 yards/attempt during that time, well off the 8.1 he had managed before the Giants game. He was sacked nine times, more than a quarter of his season’s total and turned the ball over on four occasions, nearly half of his nine for 2010. There were some mitigating factors, such as a line that appears more vulnerable every week and a relative lack of emphasis on the running game, but it can’t be denied that Vick’s final two regular-season arguments were unconvincing, save the Giants drama.

What does this mean for the Packers’ game? First, it pits a QB who lacks a hot hand against a defense that has been quite effective lately. Over Green Bay’s final nine games, only two opponents scored 20 or more points. Five were held to fewer than 10. The Packers are fifth in the league against the pass, allowing just a 56.2% completion rate, only 16 TD throws (fourth overall) and picking off 24 passes (second). And Green Bay’s 47 sacks tied for second in the NFL. In other words, this is a nasty defense against the pass. If Vick is not sharp and committed to making disciplined reads and throws, the Eagles could be in for a tough day.

Then there is the residue from the Eagles’ season-opening loss to Green Bay. I am not insinuating that Birds players are scarred by a defeat that happened nearly four months ago. Instead, I expect Green Bay to derive considerable motivation from Vick’s post-game comments that Philadelphia would have won had he played all four quarters. After Sunday’s playoff-clinching win over the Bears, two different Packers –- Clay Matthews and Greg Jennings -– mentioned that Vick hadn’t played the full game back in September. “We will have our hands full with four quarters of Michael Vick,” Matthews said. Sounds like Green Bay’s players remember Vick’s comments.

Sunday at 4:30, Rodgers will be in Philadelphia, ready to throw the ball all over the yard. But the Packer defense will be on hand, too, and that should worry Eagles fans even more. If Vick and the offense play the way they did in the two games B.D. (Before Dallas), they don’t stand a chance. The time for looking back is over. Vick must recreate the form that made him a new and improve QB, or the Birds’ playoff experience will be a short one.


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