All arms and legs

League's most elusive quarterbacks will scramble for edge in NFC game

Nfl Playoffs

Pro Football

January 10, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When all else fails, run with the ball.

For quarterbacks Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb, it's an unwritten code. Pass plays are hit and miss, but running almost always tweaks a defense where it hurts most - on third down.

The battle of the running quarterbacks will unfold tomorrow night when Vick's upstart Atlanta Falcons challenge McNabb's front-running Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC semifinal playoff game.

If McNabb weren't playing his first game since breaking an ankle Nov. 17, this almost certainly would become a track meet. And it still could be.

Eagles coach Andy Reid has no qualms about McNabb's ability to function after eight weeks on the sideline. Asked yesterday to rate his quarterback on a scale of one to five, Reid said, "He looks like a five."

Inspired out of desperation, these probably are the two best improvisational quarterbacks in the league. Vick led all quarterbacks this season with 777 rushing yards on a nifty 6.9-yard average gain. Despite missing six games, McNabb punched out 460 yards on an even better 7.3 average to rank third among quarterbacks.

McNabb was the second pick in the 1999 draft. Vick was the first pick in 2001. One is left-handed (Vick), the other's right-handed. After that, all comparisons begin with their knack for escaping the pass rush.

"When the design fails and somebody doesn't win the battle on offense, they both have the ability to keep a play alive and make something," said Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

In Week 9, Nolan crafted a game plan that held Vick to his single-game season low of minus-5 rushing yards on seven carries. Although he is loath to reveal specifics, Nolan did say a defense cannot hope to contain Vick if it approaches him cautiously.

"Vick is more explosive than any quarterback - ever - as far as his speed and his elusiveness," Nolan said. "[Former Eagles quarterback] Randall Cunningham was every bit as elusive, but he was not near as explosive to run away from you for 60 yards."

Vick's speed is such that he may be the fastest player in the league. His quickness is shocking. Still, it's his ease in changing direction that screams at Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson when he watches tape of the Falcons.

"I think that's what's unusual," Johnson said. "I've never seen a guy that can change direction so fast and make guys look funny, make guys look silly and embarrass guys, just because of the way he does that.

"Until you see the guy in person, I'm not sure looking at a lot of film you can realize how quick and how fast he really is."

McNabb, some 15 pounds heavier at 226, concedes the speed factor to Vick. But the remarkable skill of eluding would-be tacklers comes back to instinct, something both quarterbacks share.

"When you get out of the pocket and are running down the field, you're able to make a move on a guy and get an extra 5 or 6 yards," McNabb said.

"That's something I think really stands out for both of us. When you get around the corner, you're one-on-one with a linebacker or safety; you have that confidence to think you can make that guy miss and pick up a few extra yards for your team."

In his fourth NFL season, McNabb has become a better pocket passer. He was third in the NFC passer ratings this season, completing 58.4 percent of his throws for 17 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Curiously, he may have had his best passing game of the season after breaking his right fibula early against Arizona in Week 11. An immobile McNabb stood behind his pass protection and riddled the Cardinals with 20-for-25 passing and four touchdowns.

"Man or zone, I think he's done an excellent job recognizing coverage," said Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "He knows exactly where the football should go within the coverage. That's the thing that's so impressive."

He can outrun linebackers, too, Lewis said. "If you watch Donovan's scrambles, his big plays are stepping up in the rush lanes."

Filling those rush lanes by both defenses will be a critical part of tomorrow's meeting.

The Ravens blitzed Vick often in their 20-17 loss in Atlanta. They came up with three sacks, but perhaps more importantly, kept Vick from finding his rhythm as a passer and rusher.

"We made him run for his life a few times," Nolan said. "But to me, all we did was keep him off-balance as far as what we were going to do. [Safety] Ed Reed got through three times scot- free and never got him."

Johnson promises the Eagles will remain aggressive on defense, which means they'll throw a variety of blitzes at Vick.

"He's not going to run every down. ... He's going to go back and throw it," Johnson said. "If we just sit and watch him play football, he's going to have a good day. So there's an aggressive nature you have to have with still being disciplined and smart."

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