Michael Vick wants to become more of a pocket-passing quarterback, and showed last week how good he can be in that role. He might want to return to his scrambling ways this week.
“We just have to limit his explosiveness,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of Vick. “We need to cover their guys down the field.”
Vick found plenty of holes in Pittsburgh’s pass coverage last Sunday, throwing for a season-best 230 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes in a 41-38 overtime victory.
Trying to make more plays with his arm rather than his legs to protect his body from injury and wear, Vick did just that last week as he led Atlanta to victory despite rushing only five times for 40 yards—both season lows.
“For all the talk about what Vick can’t do, I like to talk about what he can do,” Falcons coach Jim Mora said. “And he does things that no other player in the history of the game at that position has the ability to do.”
Vick has rushed for 441 yards on 51 carries this season and is on pace to break the single-season rushing record by a quarterback, set by the Chicago Bears’ Bobby Douglas with 968 yards in 1972.
The Falcons top the NFL in rushing yards with 222.2 per game, nearly 70 more than any other team. They could become the first team to average more than 200 rushing yards over a full season since the Bears averaged 200.8 in 1977.
The Bengals rank 25th in the league in run defense, giving up an average of 127.0 yards per contest. They appeared to benefit from Carolina attempting only 16 rushes last week, halting the Panthers’ four-game winning streak with a 17-14 victory.
Atlanta has run the ball at least 39 times in its four wins, and no more than 26 in its two losses.
Falcons running back Warrick Dunn has totaled the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL this season with 580, though he was held to 69 on 26 carries against the Steelers. After not having a touchdown in any of the first four games, he has run for a score in each of the last two.
“When you have the No. 1-ranked run offense in the league, you have to go with your strength while you develop other areas of your team,” Mora said. “When you run the ball as well as we’ve run it, teams have got to come up. Then you’ve got to make plays down the field.”
Vick did just that last week, completing 18 of 30 passes, and found favorite target Alge Crumpler six times for 117 yards and three touchdowns. Crumpler ranks second to Philadelphia’s L.J. Smith among the NFC’s tight ends with 41 receptions and 311 yards.
Vick has been sacked a combined 12 times in Atlanta’s two losses, compared to seven times in its four victories. He was sacked a career-high seven times in the Falcons’ 27-14 loss to the New York Giants two weeks ago.
“After the loss last week, to bounce back the way we did and overcome some difficult situations is big for this team,” Vick said. “It is big for our confidence.”
What will hurt the Falcons, though, is another extended absence for pass-rushing specialist John Abraham. The defensive end has played in only two games since Atlanta acquired him from the New York Jets for a first-round pick during the offseason, and he will miss another three to four weeks following surgery Tuesday to repair a torn lower abdominal muscle.
Defensive tackle Rod Coleman also did not play last week because of turf toe, and it’s uncertain if he will be able to play Sunday.
The ailing Falcons pass rush could benefit Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer, who is fairly immobile coming off knee surgery. Only five quarterbacks have been sacked more times (19) than Palmer.
It was Palmer’s 1-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 8:07 to play that provided the winning margin last week, capping a 13-play, 86-yard drive that helped Cincinnati avoid a third straight loss.
“It’s only one game, but the difference between 4-2 and 3-3 is drastic,” Palmer said. “With the road we have ahead of us—three or four in a row against good teams—this will give us momentum and that confidence and get us back on track.”
Cincinnati’s next four opponents—Atlanta, Baltimore, San Diego and New Orleans—have a combined 17-7 record.
Palmer completed 23 of 39 passes for 240 yards with two touchdowns last week, and has not been intercepted in his last three games.
But Palmer has not thrown a touchdown pass to star receiver Chad Johnson in the last four games. Johnson has only one TD reception this season after having nine last year. He has caught six passes in each of the last three games, totaling 236 yards, and did make a 32-yard reception on a fourth-and-1 play two snaps before Houshmandzadeh’s winning score.
“Our offensive staff has to be able to pick and choose opportunities to put players in situations like that,” Johnson said.
Bengals running back Rudi Johnson ended a three-game drought in which he did not rush for 100 yards, totaling 101 on 26 carries.
The Falcons won 30-3 in 2002 at the Georgia Dome in the most recent meeting with the Bengals, but have lost all four of their games at Cincinnati since winning their first visit there in 1971.