McNabb has foes on their toes

Eagles QB's mobility is X-factor vs. Rams

Pro Football

January 24, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The evolution of quarterback Donovan McNabb continues in leaps and bounds these days. As McNabb's career moves forward, so do the Philadelphia Eagles - right into Sunday's NFC championship game.

It's hardly coincidental that the Eagles' offense did not hit full stride this season until McNabb abandoned an awkward experiment as a pocket passer and began to use his mobility in the passing game.

That mobility will be a heavy burden for Sunday's opponent - the St. Louis Rams - and a key element in determining which team advances to Super Bowl XXXVI.

"Mr. Improvisation himself," Rams free safety Kim Herring said of McNabb. "When you think he's going to run out of the pocket, then he stops and throws to a wide receiver. So us back-end guys have got to stick with our guys."

McNabb is unpredictable at the least. He has become a more selective runner and a more dangerous scrambler in the final month of the season. He runs now to buy time for his receivers to get open, and that allows him to create more big plays in the passing game.

It's a distinction that is not lost on the Rams, who needed overtime to pull out a 20-17 victory over the Eagles in Week 1 in Philadelphia.

"He's getting out of the pocket a lot more now and he's a much better quarterback when he does that," said Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom. "Early in the season, I think they were trying to coach him up and wanting him to stay in the pocket and be a pocket passer, and that's not when he's making his best plays.

"He's at his best when he's breaking [defensive] contain, buying receivers time and just kind of ad-libbing out there, and that's why he's playing much better now than he did early in the year."

McNabb has been at his best in the postseason when the Eagles needed it the most. In a 31-9 wild-card win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he threw two touchdown passes after breaking a 39-yard run on the team's second possession. In a 33-19 divisional-round win over the Chicago Bears, he ran for only 37 yards but threw for 262, dazzling the Bears with his footwork and athleticism.

"He spread the ball around," Eagles coach Andy Reid said after McNabb threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in Chicago. "He used eight different receivers and kept his eyes down the field when he had to hold onto the ball a bit and scramble around.

"Again, he continues to show signs of maturity and improvement every week."

McNabb threw for 312 yards and ran for 48 more against the Rams in September. His favorite target, however, was running back Duce Staley, who caught 11 passes, most of them on screens. He threw only a few deep balls.

McNabb was the first in a series of mobile quarterbacks St. Louis has faced, with varying success. Four times, quarterbacks have rushed for at least 45 yards against the Rams, and the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick totaled 110 yards in two games against them.

Wistrom says that prepares the Rams for what's ahead.

"We're quite a bit better defensively, and I think we're much better prepared to face a guy like McNabb," he said.

"We've faced him before. We've faced Michael Vick before. We've faced [San Francisco's] Jeff Garcia before. They're great running quarterbacks. ... He's not quite the athlete that Vick is, but he's a better quarterback than Vick is."

The Eagles can testify to that. With McNabb creating havoc for opposing defenses, Philadelphia had 334 total yards against Tampa Bay and 336 against Chicago. More importantly, McNabb's offense has generated 57 of the team's 64 points in those two wins.

"They've got a potent offense," said Herring, who joined the Rams as an unrestricted free agent this season after four years with the Ravens. "They're not going to kill you in terms of scoring a lot of touchdowns, but they're definitely going to get yards. You can't play stupid. You can't think Donovan is going to do one thing when he really is going to do another."

Herring said the Rams didn't "spy" on McNabb - assign one defender to follow the quarterback only - in their Week 1 encounter. Wistrom said he doesn't think they'll resort to trying something unusual to contain him.

"We're not a big blitzing team, so I'm sure we're just going to rush four guys most of the time," Wistrom said. "And they have a very good offensive line, so we're going to have to do a good job, and not really slow our rush down, but maintain our rush lanes ... and not give him big gaps to hit and get outside the pocket or run the football."

A Super Bowl berth may depend on it.

Rams vs. running quarterbacks

The Rams faced three running quarterbacks this season with varying results. They won each game, but the quarterbacks averaged 7.56 yards per rush against them.

Week Quarterback, team Att. Yds. TD Result

1 Donovan McNabb, Phila. 9 48 0 W, 20-17, OT

2 Jeff Garcia, San Fran. 7 45 1 W, 30-26

12 Michael Vick, Atlanta 6 52 0 W, 35-6

13 Jeff Garcia, San Fran. 1 1 1 W, 27-14

17 Michael Vick, Atlanta 4 58 0 W, 31-13

Tot. 27 204 2 5-0

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