FOXBORO, Mass. — There will be plenty of occasions Sunday when the Eagles' offense will break loose and look like an exciting, up-tempo, freewheeling mess, but there's a lot of organized chaos hidden in that madness.
Philly quarterbacks Michael Vick, who didn’t practice Wednesday and might not play Sunday against the Patriots, and Vince Young are two of the best scramblers in the NFL. When their protection breaks down and they escape from the pocket, it puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses, and that will be a significant challenge for New England this week.
Every team runs a scramble drill at practice, and it starts as early as training camp. It's even more important for the Eagles' receivers because they've got to know how to stay in rhythm with Vick and Young when they duck out of the pocket. Though there are times when Vick and Young look like they're running around in their own personal playground, there is a routine that the receivers follow.
"The quarterback and receivers, they're definitely on the same page," Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "When they scramble, they have certain patterns that they run. We have to do a good job of recognizing that when it happens and stay with them."
Eagles receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, among the others, will follow a set of guidelines when the quarterback breaks the pocket. They'll run toward the quarterback's side of the field to stay in his line of sight, and depending on the depth of their planned patterns, the receivers will typically break off into short, intermediate and deep passing routes.
The other challenge is their speed. Jackson is one of the fastest players in the NFL, and his game resembles that of Pittsburgh wideout Mike Wallace, which could mean the return of a particular practice technique. When the Patriots prepped for the Steelers, wide receiver Matthew Slater—the fastest player on the New England roster—lined up two yards offsides to simulate how quickly Wallace can break into the defense, and players noted that tactic could likely be employed again this week.
The discipline the Patriots' defensive backs and linebackers will need is two-fold. First, they can't stop moving because of the Eagles' sheer speed and athleticism.
But there's another layer there, too. Vick and Young are good at running to set up a pass. When the Patriots see the Vick or Young take off, they've got to stay in their defensive assignment until the quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage because a breakdown in coverage could lead to a long pass down the field.
It all plays into one of the biggest defensive challenges of the season for New England.
"That could be a big thing," defensive back Sterling Moore said. "If your job is to be in your zone or cover this guy, we call it 'don’t bite the cheese.' The temptation is there, but you have to be disciplined enough to stay with your responsibility.
"When you start trying to do other people's jobs and come off your responsibility, that's when you're going to give up big plays. If we stay on our jobs and our responsibilities, we'll be all right."