LB Derrick Brooks insists that the Bucs don't alter their defense to face Atlanta QB Michael Vick
Question: If Michael Vick were to hop on "The Michael Vick Experience," that clever amusement park ride in the popular Nike commercial, would he emerge in a twisted, subconscious world of all-Vick, like John Malkovich taking the portal into his own mind in Being John Malkovich? Would he be surrounded by teammates and officials named Vick, with all the fans looking suspiciously like him and all the vendors yelling out "Vick! Vick!" to sell their products?
And doesn't it kind of feel that way already when you're preparing to face the Atlanta Falcons?
Nobody wins a game alone in the NFL, and the first-place Falcons have plenty of other outstanding players. A pair of talented running backs, a top-notch tight end, two sizeable defensive tackles and a strong linebacking corps come to mind. But with the Falcons more than any other team in the league, the focus tends to fall on one player who is generally considered the most electrifying athlete in the NFL.
And it's not unreasonable. Quickie stat: Atlanta was 3-1 in games Vick started last year, 2-10 in all others.
"Michael Vick is Michael Vick," said Jermaine Phillips, safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are next up in the Experience. "He's a heck of an athlete, he's a heck of a quarterback. He can throw the ball, he can run, he can do a lot of things. I'm sure he has to get comfortable with the system, but Michael Vick is Michael Vick. He's still capable of making plays."
Did he say Michael Vick?
In the Nike commercial, one of the players who tries and fails to tackle the guy riding the ride is Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks (for the record, Brooks likes the commercial but not the actor portraying him). Other notable defenders come from teams like the Eagles and Giants – it's an all-star defense of sorts, and Vick runs through them all.
But here's the thing: An all-star defense isn't necessarily the right prescription for Vick. The Bucs' defense, as it is constructed, has proven that it is capable of containing the ultra-quick quarterback. Tampa Bay's defense doesn't mind the All-Vick Treatment. As one after another Buc defender said in the locker room on Wednesday afternoon, it's a trial they not only accept but enjoy, and one for which they feel ideally suited.
"We bring on this challenge," said defensive end Greg Spires, the type of active, hustling lineman a team needs against Vick. "This defense, we are built to chase guys like that around; to do things to stop a quarterback, to stop guys such as Michael Vick."
Added Phillips: "It's just the code of our defense – the speed and the hustle and hitting. There aren't many defenses like us in the NFL who run and hit like we do. When he's running around, it's easy to dodge one bullet, but when you have to dodge 11 it makes it a little bit more difficult."
Though his statistics weren't overwhelming, Vick had a nice effort against the Buccaneers' last December in the Falcons' 30-28 victory. Vick completed just eight of 15 passes for 119 yards and ran 12 times for 39 yards, but he tossed two touchdown passes, wasn't intercepted and wasn't sacked. On several occasions, he escaped pressure with his impressive dance steps and made plays on the perimeter when Buc defenders were forced to choose between coming up in run support or staying in coverage.
In 2002, however, during an otherwise marvelous year for Vick, the first-year starter was overwhelmed by the Bucs' defense. In two games, both Tampa Bay victories, he completed 16 of 37 passes, for 142 yards, one touchdown and one interception, gained 10 yards on seven runs and was sacked four times. In the first game, he was knocked out just before halftime by a Simeon Rice sack and was unable to return in the second half.
Tampa Bay's secret? Well, there isn't one, really. The Buccaneers insist that they don't alter what they do to counter the unique possibilities that Vick presents when he's in the backfield…and especially when he's out of it.
"We don't change our defense," said Brooks. "That is not our strength. Our strength is lining up and playing the defense we know and let the offense we are playing against make adjustments. I think that when we start to change up what we do, we are already putting ourselves in a losing position and that's something that we have never done.
"Our defense is built on fundamentals. Again, we are not going to change up anything we do just to account for one player. We respect the ability of what he can do, but we still have to go out there and play our defense. We've been pretty successful doing it, so we are not going to change."
Unlike that all-star crew in the commercial, the Bucs don't need to change because they already possess the traits that make stopping Vick possible, if far from a sure thing.
"I think we pursue better than most defenses," said cornerback Brian Kelly. "You're not going to say that one guy is going to bring this guy down. You take all 11 guys and pursue. You take the backfield guys in coverage to take away the passing zones to force him to pull the ball down and run. I think that's what we do well. We pursue better than other defenses."
Rice, who sacked Vick twice in the first game of 2002, agrees. "I think we pursue well," he said. "We play well together. I think with the scheme that we have, it allows us to be who we are on the field, more than anything, utilizing our speed and performing at a high level physically."
Of course, the Michael Vick experience took on a different edge this year when the West Coast Offense was imported by new Head Coach Jim Mora and Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp. Some wondered if the precision-passing attack would handcuff Vick, or if there would be a difficult learning curve. Others figured Vick's talents would make any system work.
The truth is probably closer to the latter. Buccaneer defenders don't believe Vick looks uneasy in the system, and they don't think it puts a cap on his unmatched physical skills anyway.
"No, it doesn't look like [he's uncomfortable]," said Kelly. "Especially coming off of a bye week, he's going to have a week to settle in and do some new things. So, I doubt he'll be uncomfortable on Sunday."
Said safety Dwight Smith: "We were thinking [things were different] until we saw the Denver game. I think they finally took the handcuffs off and told him to just play his game and you see what happens when he plays his game."
The Bucs know what can happen. It would be foolish to assume that past success against Vick will automatically translate into another dominant defensive effort. But Tampa Bay defenders are also confident, and they know what can happen when they're on the top of their games, as well.
That would be a good commercial, too, but it wouldn't all focus on one man. It would be about 11 men, playing as one.
"Speed is everywhere," said Smith. "You have to be disciplined and stay in your lanes and everybody has to believe in the other guy. That is what we tend to do around here."