Rookie Davis plays big role in containing Vick

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Michael Vick nightmare for the Carolina Panthers ended in a rush Sunday. Vick kept scrambling but his runs were contained mostly in the backfield.

The Panthers dominated the Vick-led Falcons 24-6 to maintain a one-game lead over Tampa Bay and create a two-game margin over Atlanta in the NFC South. Finally, years of drafting and free agent signings have finally worked. The tortoise has finally caught the hare.

"You need to let your speed go out there and make plays," Panthers safety Mike Minter said. "That's what happened out there. It comes down to execution."

To the Panthers, Vick has been the executioner. Coming into the game, he was 6-0 against the Panthers, five of the wins coming as a starter, and averaged 8.8 yards a run against them. John Fox's Panthers slipped past the Falcons to go to the Super Bowl during a year in which Vick was hurt, but he knew at some point he'd have to build a defense to stop him.

On Sunday, as the Panthers' best performance of the season unfolded, Fox found his secret weapons to beat Vick. The coach tried to be foxy and utilize a strategy that couldn't be copied to stop Vick. Memo to Fox: It would take three drafts for a team to copy Sunday's formula, so don't worry about patent rights violations.

The "Vick Manifest" actually was developed three years ago. General manager Marty Hurney needed to upgrade a slow group of cornerbacks to give Fox freedom to scheme against Vick. Ricky Manning Jr., now the team's third corner and slot guy, was the first piece. Hurney's gamble on first-round cornerback Chris Gamble in 2004 paid off because the Ohio State alum excels when asked to play man-to-man. The third piece to the secondary was cornerback Ken Lucas, who was signed to a six-year, $37 million contract.

Finally, the Panthers had three cornerbacks who could play man-to-man. That might not seem like a big deal to a quarterback who runs around not throwing much to his wide receivers, but it was critical during Sunday's game plan.

"When you got guys you can man up with outside and play like that, you can let the safeties be free and let them roam and let them be in the box," Minter said. "Two corners who can lock down receivers allow you not to worry about the wideouts."

Fox devised a brilliant game plan. With his cornerbacks playing a lot of man, this freed up eight defenders to play games inside the tackle box. Each play, the looks were different. First-round draft choice Thomas Davis lined up at outside linebacker and either spied or blitzed Vick. Minter came near the line of scrimmage on the non-tight end side of the field and rushed behind the Falcons' line of scrimmage to prevent Vick from running to his backside.

A few times, Carolina used a version of the Bears old "46" defense in which Davis played on the line of scrimmage as a spy and Minter lined up beside him, posing a six-man front. Often, they blitzed either a safety and a linebacker or two linebackers between the Falcons' guards to pressure Vick into making mistakes.

Vick completed 17 of 35 passes for 171 yards, but he threw only one completion longer than 17 yards. He ran only three times for 36 yards. But his most telling stats: Vick was sacked five times for losses totaling 32 yards. He was pressured on 11 other throws and hit seven other times.

"What I notice is speed; I just thought they had speed," Falcons coach Jim Mora said. "I think people make a lot of schemes sometimes when it really is the athletes. I have always believed it's players, not formations and plays. I thought their speed on defense showed up. They played well. They got off blocks. They did a nice job on the run on early downs."

A lot of credit goes to Davis, who had his best game as a pro. On Monday, Minter told him to be ready because he could play a big role in this game. The Panthers figured they wouldn't have their fastest linebacker -- Dan Morgan -- because of an ankle injury. Former Falcon Chris Draft was going to start. Davis, in his biggest assignment of the season, was the spy, forced to shadow the elusive Vick.

"I told him, 'look, it's going to be critical you come in and play well,' " Minter said. "I told him to be there and make plays. He grew up a lot today. We believe in No. 47 [Davis]. He's a guy that you have to just put him on the field and let him go play football and not have too many responsibilities."

At times, Davis was overmatched for some of his early assignments at safety and linebacker. Last week, he played more and did well against Buffalo. Though Davis only had one solo tackle, two assists and a half-sack, he harassed Vick all day, just as his teammates did. Vick always had someone in his face.

"I think they just did a great job in their rush lanes," Vick said. "They did some things that didn't allow us to get outside the pocket. They stopped us in the running game. I've got to take my hat off to them."

Davis, a native of Shellman, Ga., who attended Georgia and grew up a Falcons fan, naturally was a fan of Vick until he was drafted by the Panthers. Davis was considered the best safety in the draft, but the Panthers were among at lot of teams that liked him at linebacker. He's just a good football player trying to find a position.

"I ran about a 4.43 40 coming out of the [scouting] combine," Davis said. "My job today was trying to keep him in the pocket. We had a lot of different calls. It was exciting because I grew up watching the guy. I didn't want to be the guy he ran by."

Per normal, the Panthers-Falcons game was feisty. At least twice in the game, clusters of players from both teams grabbed at each other, pushed and shoved. Trash talking was out of control. Once, Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall shoved a football into the back of the helmet of Panthers fullback Brad Hoover, but Hoover was the one called for a 15-yard personal foul. Hoover said he's never been called for a personal foul before Sunday.

"It is feisty," Hoover said of the rivalry between the teams. "There was a lot of trash talking and a lot of words were being thrown back and forth. Any kind of rivalry -- and I consider this a rivalry even though they've had our number in the past -- that there is going to be a lot of trash talking."

The Panthers didn't have to do a lot offensively. Though they started Stephen Davis at halfback, DeShaun Foster came off the bench to end any controversy over who will be the featured back down the stretch. Foster is a north-south runner who is hard to tackle. In the first quarter on his second run, Foster broke six tackles on a 30-yard run that led to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme. That put the Panthers ahead for good, 7-3.

Foster was the Panthers' offense, rushing for 131 yards on 24 carries and catching three passes for 49 yards. He had a touchdown run and a touchdown catch in a defensive ball game.

The turning point in the game came in the second quarter when Mora went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Panthers' 46-yard line. With the Panthers still up four, defensive end Mike Rucker went unblocked into the backfield and tackled Vick for a 9-yard loss. Delhomme drove the Panthers 45 yards in seven plays and hit Steve Smith with an 18-yard touchdown to open a 14-3 lead that the Falcons never came close to contesting.

"I didn't have a chance to even look up," Vick said. "I didn't even see what happened. It was a bull rush down the line. That was just great defense on their behalf. We can't win games and put our defense in those types of situations on a fourth-and-1 if we don't convert."

Next week, the Panthers host the Buccaneers needing a victory to make sure Sunday's victory over Atlanta wasn't just a moment of cleansing their souls of the Michael Vick monster.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.