Thus Reeves, the Atlanta coach, and his defensive coordinator, Phillips, are stubbornly both still playing runball in a passball era.
But their progress in the playoffs next month will depend on whether the Falcons can modernize their game. They have a way to go. In a 34-10 rout last Sunday, it was Reeves, not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who routed Vick. Even worse, it was Phillips' defensive strategy that led to Tampa's three touchdown passes in the second quarter, putting Vick in a hole so deep he couldn't climb out. Strategically, the Falcons' game was a disaster.
Wrong Defense Lets Johnson Star
THE TAMPA PASSER, Brad Johnson, is the picture-perfect opposite of a mobile quarterback. Among NFL starters, he ranks as probably the least mobile. Nor is Johnson's offensive line well respected. Offensively, the Buccaneer asset is Johnson's arm. Near or far, he can throw a football straight. Yet, obviously, there are ways to attack good passers who can't move and who play behind offensive linemen so ordinary that no one fears their running backs. In Johnson's case, the way to beat him, his smartest opponents say, is with a two-man blitz up the middle, using either two linebackers or one and a safety. They say it almost always works. Nonetheless, that's precisely what Atlanta didn't do.
Throughout the Tampa-Atlanta game, Phillips, the defensive coach in charge of stopping Johnson, lined up the Falcons in conventional defenses designed, in the NFL idiom, to stop the run and react to the pass. And stop the run they did, for as long as the score was close. The Tampa threat, though, is Johnson, who was left alone, just the way he likes it. It's the only way he can get off a pass. Once in a while, Phillips blitzed him from the outside, but it is the multiple inside blitz that a statue masquerading as a passer can't handle. Leaving a player like Johnson free to throw those big passes was a defensive disgrace.
Wrong Offense Ruins Vick's Day
GOOD DEFENSIVE FOOTBALL is an art requiring different approaches to different quarterbacks. Against a slow-footed passer like Johnson, the defensive play that works is a hard rush up the middle that flushes him outside, where he tends to be helpless. But against a running quarterback like Vick, defensive teams want him inside.
And when Vick was on the field Sunday, inside is where he was, but it took two teams to keep him there, the other team and his own. His conventional coach, Reeves, lost by playing conventional football with the most unconventional quarterback of our times.
The players who give the Buccaneers the league's best defense are their front four, who, though awesome, can be discouraged by quick, rather long passes thrown before they can get to the passer — just the kind Vick throws so well. The best formations for that kind of offense are those with four wide receivers — just the kind that Reeves didn't use Sunday.
Falcon Play-Calling Also Hurts Falcons
INSTEAD, IT WAS orthodox football as usual for Reeves, whose play selection was as conventional as his strategy, and as detrimental to Vick's style. Unlike other quarterbacks, he is both an alert passer and an extraordinary runner whose big gainers come on scrambles, one of which, a long one, had beaten Minnesota in overtime a week earlier.
But scrambles are runs that begin as pass plays — opening up the field — and the Falcons called few passes at Tampa until the second half, when, far behind, they had to pass, and Tampa knew it, which is a wholly different problem.
In terms of Vick's future, only the first half was relevant that day when Tampa led at the break, 21-3. The second half — in which a 22-year-old neophyte was playing catch-up against the league's toughest and most mature defense — doesn't count.
At times, theoretically, Reeves could have used Vick as a designated runner in planned running plays out of the quarterback position; but fearing an injury, the Falcons frown on such plays, as most football people believe they should.