When the Ravens play the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday and Eagles quarterback Michael Vick inevitably finds a creative way to escape the pocket, the Ravens will have to worry about something much more dangerous than Vick scrambling down the field for a sizable chunk of yardage. The bigger concern will be not losing track of Philadelphia's wide receivers, who can get behind Baltimore's defensive backs if their eyes are glued to Vick.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh likens Vick to a very familiar foe: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has burnt the Ravens before with deep throws after extending plays outside the pocket.
"Both guys are uncannily accurate when they are on the move," Harbaugh said Friday afternoon. "Ben can run, too, but Michael adds that speed factor. You really have to cover your guy, though. You really have to stay on your man downfield and then rally up on the run as best as you can. ... Hopefully we don't let [Vick] out of the pocket too much -- but it would be hard to bat 1.000 on that one against a guy like that."
No team rolled their quarterbacks out on bootlegs more than the Eagles last season, and they tried to do it often against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 -- sometimes off play-action and almost always to his left -- but the Browns did a good job of maintaining their coverage while also flustering Vick into several poor decisions. Still, when Vick is on his game, he is a serious threat to his opponent instead of his team's chances of winning.
The four-time Pro Bowler has a highlight reel longer than the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. As an example, let's take a look at this one spectacular play that Vick made in the Eagles' 24-23 loss to the defensively-stout San Francisco 49ers last October.
Vick, who lined up alone in the backfield, took a shotgun snap and was immediately pressured up the middle. He spun around one defender and ducked under another before running to his right and lobbing a pass to tight end Clay Harbor in the corner of the end zone. It took at least five seconds for Vick to handle the snap, avoid the rush and throw the touchdown pass, so it was no surprise that the 49ers lost track of Harbor. And that was inside the red zone. Those broken plays are even tougher to defend when Vick has the length of the field to work with, and with speedy wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin running into open space.
"You've just got to plaster -- you have to cover your man and keep an eye on your man at all times," cornerback Cary Williams said.
Last season, both Jackson and Maclin were tied for 21st in the NFL with 15 catches of 20-plus yards, and tight end Brent Celek was right behind them with 14. Jackson was tied for ninth with five catches of 40-plus yards. Both Jackson (hamstring) and Maclin (hip) are listed as questionable for the game. Jason Avant and rookie Damaris Johnson are next up on the depth chart. But Maclin says he is playing Sunday, and we'll see about Jackson.
"They're two of the best, fastest and quickest wide receivers in the league," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "Pure talent. … They are big-play guys, so we have to know where they are at all times."
Most of those big plays did not come after Vick broke out of the pocket. The point is that these guys are explosive on the own without the benefit of getting four, five, six, seven seconds to evade their defenders. But when Vick does break contain and scramble out of the pocket, the defensive backs have to resist the urge to peek into the Eagles backfield to watch Vick dance around.
"We've got to know where [their receivers] are at," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "They remind me a lot of the St. Louis Rams when they had [running back] Marshall Faulk and those speedy receivers [Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce]. But now you take the quarterback position and you put in another speedster there in Michael Vick. That's an outstanding offense. Very fast. Extending the play to longer than it's supposed to be, that's scary."