PHILADELPHIA -- Winston Justice figures that many of his contemporaries who line up on the opposing defense against the Philadelphia Eagles spent a good deal of their teenage years playing Madden NFL.
NFC East Squad Leaders
Now, when those 20-something defenders stare across the line at the No. 7 playing quarterback for the Eagles, they find themselves agonizing over those how-did-he-just-do-that runs and other dynamic plays that once gave them so much joy when they were at the controls of their consoles.
The Indianapolis Colts' defense received such a painful reminder in Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Eagles. In his first game back after being sidelined for a month with a rib injury, Vick looked every bit as explosive as he was in his prime seasons with the Falcons. He ran for 74 yards, including a touchdown, and threw for 218 more and another TD.
Making Vick even more dangerous was the return of wide receiver DeSean Jackson from a concussion. As a receiving and rushing threat, Jackson might very well not have any peers. Against the Colts, he caught seven passes for 109 yards, including a 58-yarder that set up a field goal, and a touchdown. He also ran three times for 20 yards.
"Especially when they're on the field at the same time," Justice said. As a blocker, he knows how much easier it is to run misdirection plays because the defense has to be aware of Vick's constant running threat and the fact that whenever the ball is in Jackson's hands, "it might be a touchdown."
What he soon realized, thanks to a concussion that Kolb suffered halfway through the first game of the season, was that Vick's dynamic skills gave him a more explosive version of McNabb. And what made Vick an even better fit was that, after spending the 2009 season getting himself in shape after two years of incarceration for his role in a dogfighting ring, he had blossomed into a better passer than any time since the Falcons made him the top pick of the 2001 draft.
"If he's not (as the same level as a runner as he was with the Falcons), he's as close as you can be," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "He's worked very, very hard and very diligently, really for a year and a half, to get to the level that he's at both physically and playing that quarterback position."
Jackson's speed makes him an ideal target for Vick's ultra-powerful arm and improvisational abilities.
"Me and DeSean, we have chemistry," Vick said. "I know where he's going to be and it's funny, because 90 percent of the time, when I throw the ball to him deep and I think I overthrow him, he just goes to get it. He's a very dynamic player and I'm just glad to have him on my team."
And on Sunday, they saw further evidence of Vick's toughness. His rib injury had been extremely painful. It was the type of thing that tends to happen to a quarterback who relies as much, if not more, on his legs as he does on his throwing arm. Vick ran 10 times against the Colts, and he didn't slide once.
Reid understands that could prove to be a problem, because having an explosive quarterback or an explosive quarterback-receiver combination isn't so explosive when one or both is out of the lineup.
"It's going to be hard to hold him back," Reid said of Vick. "This is one of the more competitive guys that I've been around. It's hard, because you don't want to take anything away from his game. He did run out of bounds one time. I was fired up about that."
"I play this game the way I play it, and I'm not going to change," he said. "I'm not going to play this game scared or hesitant or conservative. Regardless of what happens out there, whether I run and get hurt or I don't, it's just me playing my game."
As discomforting as that might be for Reid and the rest of the Eagles' hierarchy, it has to be much more chilling for the remaining defenses on Philadelphia's schedule.
They've got answers
» The Chicago Bears, because offensive coordinator Mike Martz actually showed the capacity to be balanced in his play-calling against the Buffalo Bills. The Bears ran 31 times, including five by quarterback Jay Cutler, and called 31 pass plays. Cutler still had some issues with his throwing mechanics and decision-making, but the approach gave him a greater chance to succeed than Martz's typical pass-happy philosophy.
They've got questions
» The Seattle Seahawks, because on top of how badly their offense suffers without injured quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, they no longer have whatever bounce that coach Pete Carroll was able to provide with his high-energy style. After a 4-2 start, the Seahawks have suffered back-to-back losses by a combined score of 74-10 and show zero hope for improvement. Perhaps that is why Carroll and general manager John Schneider made those endless changes to the roster.
» The New England Patriots, because in addition to their significant defensive issues, they are, indeed, missing the ability to stretch opposing defenses that they gave up when they got rid of Randy Moss.
» There was a widely held presumption around the NFL that Perry Fewell's defensive scheme was among the many shortcomings of the Bills, and had caused his star to fall as their coordinator and interim coach last season after Dick Jauron was fired. However, as has been made clear through a winless start, the Bills' defensive problems are more a matter of talent than coaching and Fewell has done a tremendous job of rebuilding his credentials with the Giants. He is likely to emerge as a strong head-coaching candidate after the season.
» Reid made a point of singling out the efforts of his defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, and the rest of his defensive coaches for the aggressive scheming they did against the Colts. Sure, the Colts were missing multiple key components on offense, but they still had Peyton Manning. And the Eagles did a tremendous job of taking him out of his comfort zone. Before defensive end Darryl Tapp dumped the quarterback for the first of three sacks, it marked the first time Philadelphia managed to sack Manning since 1999, his second season. In four games against the Eagles, Manning has been sacked only four times.
» Those rumbling concerns within the Dolphins about the performance of quarterback Chad Henne aren't going to get any quieter after the way he struggled against Baltimore. If the Dolphins are to have any hope of rallying in the second half of the season for a playoff spot, they might very well have to switch to Chad Pennington as their starter.
» It shouldn't come as any surprise that the Houston Texans blocked their first punt of the season against the San Diego Chargers, who had allowed four blocks before Sunday. It also shouldn't come as any surprise that Texans linebacker Stanford Keglar had the block that set up a touchdown run. Before the game, he had talked with reporters about noticing on tape the punt-rush schemes of Charger opponents were "tricky," and that San Diego's punt protectors were missing rushers by inches. Looks like they can be fooled again ... and again ... and again.
» Jim Schwartz is discovering that it doesn't take long for fans to stop seeing you as the coach of an up-and-coming team on the verge of turning the corner to a coach who just might not have what it takes (i.e. the Lions squandering a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter on the way to a heartbreaking loss to the Jets in overtime) to get his club over that elusive hump.
Four intriguing games for Week 10
Minnesota at Chicago: The Chilly Watch continues. Even after the Vikings managed to squeak out a win against Arizona, Brad Childress appears to have a tenuous grasp on his job and seems to have lost a large portion of the faith of the fans. With career days, Brett Favre and Percy Harvin were the only ones who saw their stock rise after that victory. Of course, the Vikings could very well get into the playoff hunt. Meanwhile, the Bears also are teetering after barely beating the winless Bills. Lovie Smith's job security remains a question mark, although not quite as large as the one attached to Childress'.
N.Y. Jets at Cleveland: This will be billed as the "Ryan Brothers Bowl," although Eric Mangini deserves plenty of credit for the Browns' suddenly becoming everyone's nightmare opponent. He heard the possibility raised of team president Mike Holmgren returning to sidelines and responded like someone who wants to keep his job. It helps that his defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, is doing a superb job and will be trying to cook up a scheme to make life miserable for his twin brother, Rex, the Jets' coach. It also helps that McCoy has bailed out the Browns at quarterback.
New England at Pittsburgh: Many of us who were quick to move the Patriots to the top of our rankings obviously had to do some revising. The Patriots' defensive flaws are nothing new, but they (and especially Tom Brady) had seemed to find a way to keep the offense mostly clicking despite having so many young players and no deep threat. Rob Ryan's defense managed to expose those shortcomings. The Steelers' defense only figures to do more of the same as the Patriots enter a daunting stretch that continues with games against the Colts, Lions, and Jets.
Philadelphia at Washington: The Eagles have plenty of confidence after beating the Colts. They know that the dynamic duo of Vick and Jackson gives them a chance to win every week. And they know their defense can stand up tall to one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Meanwhile, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan still presumably has a mess on his hands with his clumsy handling of Donovan McNabb. If McNabb truly is incapable, physically and mentally, of handling what Shanahan needs him to do, then acquiring him was a foolish mistake for which the Redskins could end up paying for beyond this season.