DE Simeon Rice and the Bucs' defense have managed to contain Michael Vick at times in the past
Finally, 10 games into the season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face their long-time rival and prime NFC South foe, the Atlanta Falcons. The game will pit two 6-3 teams on Atlanta's turf and provide some insight into which of the two will prove to be Carolina's prime competitor for the division title.
But the game also means the Bucs will pull adjacent to – and perhaps provide some evidence for – one of the more divisive NFL debates of the 2005 season. The debate boils down to this: Michael Vick the Athlete versus Michael Vick the Quarterback.
Few question Vick's innate athletic abilities – the cannon arm, the legs that could make him a Pro Bowl running back and the open-field instincts. Some, however, question whether the fifth-year Falcon is truly a great quarterback, a passer who can control the game with his arm when need be.
At least one Buccaneer thinks the whole debate is rather silly. That would be Head Coach Jon Gruden, who despises many statistics but believes this one: Vick is 28-15-1 as a starting quarterback in the National Football League, including a 17-6 mark over the last two seasons.
"Some of these people who analyze this have got to be out of their skulls, in my opinion," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden. "He's a rocket ship. He is redefining the position in his own way. He threw for 250 yards, 22 out of 31 against Miami. I saw him make great throws, great decisions. When the pocket breaks down and they want to move the pocket with the naked bootleg, find somebody on this planet who can do what he can do with his hands on the ball. The guy's a phenomenal athlete who can throw."
That's the crux of the issue for any Vick opponent. He runs better than any other quarterback in NFL history and he can throw the ball through a brick wall with his left arm. Do you pull out the stops to contain him and the pocket and dare you to beat him downfield, or do you respect his arm and risk falling prey to a ridiculous scramble? Vick has finished two straight games with a passer rating of more than 100.0, and he's also run for 52 yards and a score in that span. Minnesota got a taste of both problems in Week Four when Vick put up a passer rating of 129.7 and rushed for 58 yards on just four carries.
"He's the heart and soul of the Falcon football team, if you ask me," said Gruden. "Everybody in the stands is wearing these number seven jerseys. I think in his own way he's redefining the quarterback position the way he wants it to be defined. No one else is like him. There are a lot of guys who might try to emulate him but, good God, he's a hard guy to go up against because of his special, rare talent."
Truth be told, the Bucs aren't much interested in the Vick debate. They're more concerned with not providing the pro-Vick faction any ammunition. Tampa Bay has been witness to the development of Vick since the NFC South was formed in 2002, Vick's second NFL season. More often than not, the Bucs have proven capable of reining him in. The Bucs have won four of the six meetings since the South came into existence, with Vick on hand for five of those games. They rather famously handled the Atlanta dynamo in their 2002 Super Bowl season, but Vick has gained a few measures of revenge since.
Last year, the Falcons won the first meeting with Tampa Bay, in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Vick completed eight of 16 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception and also ran nine times for 73 yards. In the rematch in Tampa, however, Vick was picked off twice and completed just 13 of 27 passes in a 27-0 Buccaneer whitewash. Even then, he ran for 81 yards on just eight carries. Simply put, the Bucs are believers...but not intimidated.
Prior success against Vick will certainly be a confidence booster for the Bucs' defense, but it's play in the Washington shootout was not quite so uplifting. Tampa Bay allowed 388 yards to Mark Brunell and the Redskins attack and had trouble stopping Brunell from making big plays while on the run. The Bucs, who have allowed fewer than 30 percent of third-down snaps against them to succeed this year, couldn't stop Brunell and company from converting on seven of 15 third downs, plus one fourth down.
The Bucs, in fact, have allowed over 30 points in consecutive games for the first time since the last two contests of 2003. They'll need to much better on Sunday to contain Vick, Warrick Dunn and the rest of the Falcons' explosive offense.
"By the standards we have in place here, we didn't play well enough on defense [against Washington]," said Gruden. "I think our players realize that. We had some great individual efforts, great individual plays, but we didn't play to our standards. I'm concerned and mad when our defense gives up a first down, to be honest with you. But I'm very confident that we have the right stuff in that room to put it together and once again be great next week."
Sunday's game will be the second straight battle of lefties for Tampa Bay, as Vick is opposed by Buccaneer quarterback Chris Simms. Last Sunday, Simms helped the Bucs out-duel Brunell and the Redskins in a thrilling, 36-35 win that might have been a coming-out party for the third-year passer. If there has been a debate about Simms it is whether he is ready to take over the helm of a team in playoff contention and keep them there. He appeared to be quite ready against Washington and now, for the second straight week, will lead the Bucs into a game heavy with playoff implications against a team with the exact same record.
And, suddenly, the Bucs seem as confident in their lefty as the Falcons are in Vick.
"He made some big-time plays, he made some big-time throws," said Gruden of Simms, regarding the Washington game. "It was great. It was good for our whole football team to know that when we get the ball back, like our defense did for us, we get a chance to get it done. We have a quarterback who can make plays."
Sounds like something the Falcons would say about their passer. The Bucs hope to make them feel differently, if only for one afternoon.