49ers vs. Eagles: 5 Ways San Francisco Can Contain Michael Vick

Ted JohnsonAnalyst ISeptember 27, 2011

49ers vs. Eagles: 5 Ways San Francisco Can Contain Michael Vick

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    With a bruised right hand, Michael Vick (in green) will be at less than full strength Sunday when the Eagles host the 49ers. Yet Vick remains one of the most dynamic players in the league.

     Note that he’s attempted 87 passes and been sacked only four times, testament to his elusiveness. Also, he’s the Eagles’ second-leading rusher behind LeSean McCoy with a 6.4-yard average per scamper.

     With those factors in mind, this game will challenge all facets of San Francisco’s team. Here are five things the 49ers have to do Sunday to win in Philadelphia

Stop McCoy

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    For a team so ripped with top-name NFL stars like Nmandi Asomughe, DeSean Jackson, Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin, the most effective player on the Eagles right now is running back LeSean McCoy. He’s second in the league in rushing at 115 yards per game and a toasty 6.1 average per carry.

    With Vick posing a great threat to run at any time, the Eagle running game comes down to much more than Vick’s improvisation. Like any offense, though, Philadelphia success comes down to good yardage on first down, either through run or pass. The Niners would do well to focus on McCoy on first and second downs. Getting third-and-long negates McCoy, putting Vick in the pocket.

Opposites Don’t Attract

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    With Vick at quarterback, 49er defensive coordinator Vic Fangio probably will plan a scheme that limits Vick’s biggest threat, his legs. His career average is nearly 7 yards a run. When he broke in with the Atlanta Falcons in 2001, many considered him the fastest player in the NFL.

    It is a common defensive intent to take away a player’s strength, and for Vick that would be is elusiveness. The goal would be to contain him in the pocket and make him beat you with his head and his arm. The thing is, the 49er linebackers are very fleet, and their ability to hunt down Vick if he does break the pocket should be an asset.

    One thing Fangio probably won’t do, and that’s blitz. Vick dodges the rush very well, and getting past the blitz means lots of open space.

    The Eagles have DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, two of the better receivers in the game. Together they have combined for 34 catches, and Jackson in particular is a deep threat. Expect the 49ers to play safeties on top of the cornerbacks to provide added help on the Eagle receivers. Also, watch that the rush doesn’t hurry Vick so much as contain him. The 49ers will force Vick to beat them reading coverages and making throws.

Win Third Down

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    The 49ers rank seventh in yards allowed at 306.3, but they’re tied for fourth-best in the league in limiting offenses to convert only 31 percent of their third downs. This is a huge improvement over last year (so far). It also has to be taken with a wagon load of salt because they’ve played two weak teams – Seattle and Cincinnati.

     That said, the Niners have a strong front-7 defensively. Within that group, linebackers Parys Haralson, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks (with edge rusher Aldon Smith) give the Niners the perfect antidote for an escape artist like Vick. They’re fast enough to contain him.

     Also, I expect we might see more of Aldon Smith than any other game just for his height and presence rushing from the outside.

     The Niner pass defense has improved, but as Dallas showed, it is vulnerable to the big plays. With score-at-any-time threats like Jackson and Maclin, Fangio still must consider Vick’s escapability first. That means relatively few blitzes.

Offensive Offense

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    This is the game in which the 49er offense has to graduate from elementary to high school. They will be playing in a sold-out stadium full of rabid, loud fans. That means snap counts will be hard to hear; that means player substitution will be critical so that the right groups are on the field for the right plays.

     This is what it means to win on the road in the NFL. It is every home team’s advantage in that the visitor has to deal with noise. The Niner offense will have to play up to it, something they didn’t really have to face when only 43,000 showed up in Cincinnati.

     The Eagles have given up 77 points in three games against opponents that include the Falcons and the Giants. The Niners have given up 52, fourth best, and so far they have yielded only 10 first-half points.

     Being able to maintain that in Philly will be difficult. It’s up to the offense to move the ball and keep the defense from playing under great stress. Getting first downs and sustaining drives more than three plays will limit the crowd’s impact on the game.

     or a team that’s 30th in yards, in part due to the fact the Niners complete only 30 percent of their third-down pass plays, this game’s outcome rides more on the 49er offense.

Play for the Boos

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    In the 1980s, Bill Walsh’s 49er teams actually had a better record on the road than at home. You can look it up. That hasn’t been the case lately. The 49ers in the last eight years and three games are 15-50 on the road, which, needless to say, makes last Sunday’s win in Cincinnati and anomaly.

     Now they’re in a much more hostile environment against a team loaded with Pro Bowl talent on both sides of the ball. It’s a game that can easily get out of control, and coach Jim  Harbaugh knows that.

     At the same time, the Eagles have been called the Dream Team. Many “experts” picked them for the Super Bowl, yet here they are at 1-2 and their quarterback has been dinged up. The pressure is on.

     That is to the 49ers’ advantage. If they can control Philly’s ground game, harass Vick into some bad throws, gain ground in special teams exchanges, you’ll hear the boos from Iggles fans. Music to 49er ears.

     Moving the ball on offense will be crucial; and so far Alex Smith has earned an A in the way he’s kept his cool in the pocket despite getting sacked 11 times but throwing only one interception.  But the Niners will need more than the 13-point effort in Week 3.

     If Smith can get some time in the pocket for deep throws, and if the defense can control McCoy, the 49ers will be very competitive. For Eagle fans who, entering the game, will expect an easy game over a doddering San Francisco team, that can be frustrating. And if there is anything that’s consistent about Eagle fans, it’s their ability to voice their discontent.

     If the 49ers walk off the field at Lincoln Stadium with a hard-earned W, there will be plenty of booing – at the Eagles. That should be San Francisco’s goal.