The Michael Vick experiment has not gone the way that everyone would have liked, as the Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Baltimore Ravens in overtime last Thursday, 23-20. In that game, Vick was seemingly on a short leash and either was not allowed or expected to run a dynamic offense on a short week against a divisional opponent. The offensive scheme that the Steelers’ coaching staff did decide to run with Vick manning the helm was understandable, but ultimately ineffective. The coaching staff needs to take the leash off of Vick if there is any hope for the Steelers’ offense to survive until Ben Roethlisberger is able to come back and lead the league’s most potent offense. This begins and ends with using Vick as his own weapon.
THERE’S GAS LEFT IN THE TANK
Vick is arguably one of, if not the most, exciting players in college football history. Part of his undeniable excitability on Sundays is his ability to scramble out of the pocket and make a play with his legs. It’s important to point out, while remaining fair to Vick, that he no longer possesses that “home run” ability that he once had. He can no longer scramble out of the pocket and turn a five yard loss into a fifty yard touchdown. Those days may have long been over for him. It’s also important to point out, however, that Vick still has gas left in the tank and still possesses the ability to make plays with his legs. This begs the question: why did we not see more designed runs earlier in the game that were not on 4th-and-2 in overtime?
I’m not asking for a re-designed offense for Vick to operate under. Such a suggestion would be foolish for multiple reasons. One, Roethlisberger’s injury may not keep him out of the lineup as long as once thought. Two, a re-designed offense in Week 5 of the regular season is always a bad idea. What I am suggesting, is designing a gameplan around Vick that allows him to become his own “weapon” on the field.
The Steelers offense under Roethlisberger is the best in football. I don’t know if this is debatable any longer. Roethlisberger, in combination with All-Pro’s Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, budding star Martavis Bryant and solid slot receiver Markus Wheaton boasts the most dynamic, talented and explosive offense in football. Under Vick, these weapons still exist and remain as explosive as ever, but need to be utilized in a different way. Roethlisberger and Brown have chemistry that is second-to-none in the league. The anticipation and talent of these two combine for the best quarterback and receiver duo in the league. Brown has come out and recently expressed that his timing and chemistry with Vick needs work. This can effectively be negated by having Brown dominate the underneath game and allow Bryant to take the top off of defenses. Brown can efficiently work in the range of comfort for Vick, allowing him to make easy reads which result in easy completions. The point of this is two-fold: one, the Steelers’ passing attack against a Baltimore secondary that had issues against quarterback Derek Carr was seemingly stifled at home. Easy reads and completions to move the chains alleviate the stress and pressure off of Vick and allow the offense to rely on Bell to be the workhorse. Two, this type of gameplan opens up the zone-read and, by extension, play-action.
This upcoming week features the return of Bryant to an already-loaded offensive unit and not a week too soon. Vick has always thrived on the deep ball, play-action by bigger, taller receivers. Vick showed against the Ravens he still has the ability to push the ball deep with his exceptionally strong arm. Bryant is the sort of receiver that creates mismatches, specifically against a smaller defensive back unit of the San Diego Chargers. Cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett are both 5’9″. Bryant, in case we’ve forgotten in his absence, is 6’4″ with exceptional athleticism and ability to create mismatches in any secondary he faces. This only matters if the Steelers are able to run the ball efficiently against the Chargers, which based off of the first four weeks of the season, should not be a problem. The Chargers currently boast the 29th-ranked rushing defense in the league, and have not yet faced a running back stable like the Steelers boast. This is where making Vick into the Swiss Army Knife-type of passer I am suggesting comes into play heavily.
Vick still has the ability to force defenders respect his ability to run. This can be accomplished a number of different ways, but may be most effective if a zone-read gameplan is implemented and executed early in the game. Vick needs to be allowed to make his legs into another weapon of the Steelers’ offense and add another element to an already successful rushing attack. This not only adds another wrinkle to the offense, but forces the Chargers to respect Vick as a runner and no longer have the ability to crash the edge against Bell in the run game. Vick may no longer have the ability to churn out twenty or thirty yard gains consistently, but he still possesses the ability to force defenses to respect his athleticism. Even five, six or seven yard gains consistently over the game opens the door for Bell and play-action deep balls down the field.
DON’T DUMB IT DOWN, JUST SIMPLIFY
There has been quite a bit of talk recently how the Steelers “dumbed down” the offense for Vick after a short week of practice so he could understand it and run it efficiently. While the sentiment may have been true, the wording of it makes it inaccurate. The offense was not “dumbed down” for Vick, but it was instead narrowed down, perhaps too much.
While I do agree the offense needs to be simplified, I disagree in how the Steelers went about it. Yes, after a short week of practice and limited first team reps for Vick throughout the season, there was no realistic chance that Vick was going to see the entire playbook against Baltimore. The offense does not need to be simplified to a point of being vanilla, and that is what the offense was against the Ravens. Instead of over-simplification and becoming predictable (albeit unpredictable in overtime, surprisingly), the Steelers need to simplify by giving Vick easy reads and not ask him to diagnose and dissect a defense pre-snap. This offense can not only survive without Roethlisberger, but it can thrive, by giving Vick the ability to go through simple progressions. Vick can rely heavily on Brown creating mismatches underneath and generating yards after the catch, while leaning on Bell and his own legs to eat at opposing front sevens.
Vick just needs the opportunity.