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Patriots scramble to devise game plan

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / November 26, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - It sounds simple enough, but job No. 1 for the Patriots’ defense tomorrow against the Eagles might be keeping eyes on the quarterback at all times.

Michael Vick is known for his improvisational style, but his backup, Vince Young, isn’t a classic pocket passer either. Though Vick is listed as questionable with cracked ribs suffered against the Cardinals two weeks ago, he didn’t take a snap in practice all week, and it is very likely that Young will make his second straight start.

Young’s star has fallen in recent years and he may not be quite as talented as Vick, but he still poses a similar threat as a quarterback who will scramble, either to keep a play alive trying to get an open receiver, or to tuck the ball and gain whatever yards he can.

So defending Vick or Young has its own challenges.

“The players who are pass-rushing the quarterback have a responsibility to keep him within the framework of the pocket,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week. “Depending on what the defensive call is, sometimes we have a person assigned to a scrambling quarterback. Sometimes we don’t, again depending on what defense we’re in and what the call is. We’ve done that both ways. If we assign somebody to him, then obviously that guy has him and the other people can be more aggressive in the rush.

“If we don’t assign somebody to him, then everybody has to be more lane-conscious. It’s kind of like, on a smaller scale, a punt return, where somebody has to be outside, somebody has to be inside, and you have to keep the ball leveraged.’’

The biggest difference between Young and Vick is that Vick is lefthanded, which is an anomaly but something New England just spent time preparing for a week ago with Kansas City’s Tyler Palko. With the righthanded Young, there are no such adjustments to be made. But Young, like Vick, has a big arm and can throw the ball downfield when needed, and there’s always the threat that he’ll escape and create something out of nothing with his legs.

But in his first start of the season, against the Giants last week, Young stayed in the pocket, with just six carries for 5 yards (three of those were on end-of-game kneeldowns, resulting in a loss of 4 yards). Young was 23 of 36 for 258 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions, but he led the Eagles on the winning, 18-play drive, during which he completed 7 of 9 passes for 67 yards.

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said a big part of defending Young is “just making sure everyone’s able to see the quarterback, first and foremost. Sometimes in man-to-man you’ll lose him, but he’s a great athlete, both quarterbacks, and they’re both very mobile. So it starts up front, but it’s an 11-man effort.’’

In practice this week, Belichick and the coaching staff tried to simulate facing the Eagles as best they could for the defense with their own backup quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, having them run more roll-out plays and bootlegs, and telling them to scramble if something broke down.

Neither Hoyer nor Mallett has the speed or athleticism of Young and Vick, Belichick noted, but they tried to give as good an idea as possible of what the defense will be up against.

Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who was carted off the practice field Thursday with a hyperextended left knee and is questionable for tomorrow, sees Vick and Young daily and offered his thoughts on how teams might have to alter their game plans when facing the two quarterbacks.

“I think they kind of limit the kind of coverages that you want to do, especially if he can throw and run,’’ Asomugha said. “If he can throw, then you don’t really want to be in that many zones [because] then he’ll find those guys that are wide open in the zone. If you want to play man, then there are a lot of guys with their backs turned to the quarterback because he’s got legs and he can take off running. So it poses a lot of problems for a defensive coordinator. You have to figure out what the best way is to stop a team with a running quarterback. Defenses don’t really want to play against those guys.’’

Whether they want to face Young (or Vick) or not, the Patriots have no choice tomorrow. They just have to be prepared.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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