How Jason Peters’ understudy Andre Dillard shined at Buffalo and brightened the future of the Eagles’ O-line | Marcus Hayes
The athletic rookie slowed himself down in the team's biggest win of the season.
Shaq Lawson plowed Andre Dillard backward and into the lap of Carson Wentz. That is not a figure of speech; Lawson actually reached over Dillard and dragged both the 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback and the 6-foot-5, 315-pound left tackle to the ground, perhaps the most ferocious sack of the NFL season.
It happened on the first play of the Eagles’ second possession Sunday. It did not bode well.
It was an exception.
Dillard, in the main, played superbly at Buffalo. The Eagles, in the main, are delighted with this.
“Well. Really well,” answered Doug Pederson when asked how Dillard played. “I think this guy, gosh, you watch him pass off [defensive trick maneuvers], you watch his athleticism, again, against a really good defensive end, pass rush guy ... and even in the run game, you’re starting to see that progression with him take over in the run game.”
That’s all well and good, but the Bears are bringing four-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Khalil Mack to Philadelphia on Sunday, and Dillard will occasionally face the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. Bring it, said coordinator Mike Groh.
“Andre’s done a great job the last two weeks," Groh said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in Andre.”
Why is Pederson so pleased? How could Groh be so comfortable?
Because Dillard has answered the team’s most urgent question:
Who will replace J.P.?
For three years, the Eagles have sought a replacement for future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters, who is disintegrating in front of their eyes. Peters missed nine games and the playoffs in the 2017 Super Bowl season with a knee injury. He started every game in 2018 but played just 80 percent of the snaps. He missed his second consecutive game Sunday with a knee injury, and there is no timetable for his return. Peters is the best lineman in team history, and he’s one of the top five Eagles ever, but his 37-year-old body is going on 50.
The Eagles drafted right tackle Lane Johnson in 2013 and expected Johnson to flip sides when the time came, but Johnson proved nearly peerless on the right, so they won’t move him. They hoped 2016 fifth-rounder Halapoulavaati Vaitai might develop into a starter, but he now profiles as a backup. They gambled that they could polish rough diamond Jordan Mialata, a 2018 seventh-rounder from Australia who quit rugby for football, but the job is harder than they’d anticipated. So, in April, they traded up three spots to take Dillard 22nd overall, even though they’d restructured Peters’ contract in March to make sure he would return for the 2019 season.
Again: They traded fourth-round and sixth-round picks and used their first pick in the draft to acquire a player they hoped they wouldn’t use. Smart. The position is that important.
Dillard is making them look even smarter.
With Dillard penciled in at left tackle for the foreseeable future, profootballfocus.com ranks the Eagles’ line second in the league, behind the Colts'. Dillard is grading out much better, too. When he relieved Peters at Minnesota three games ago, Dillard scored a 49.9 via PFF, reached 54.9 at Dallas, then popped a completely respectable 68.9 at Buffalo. It’s not Peters’ 77.0 average, but it’s not crippling, either -- and that’s all the Eagles want in this moment.
“When you get a backup in there, you really just want a guy who’s not going to lose you a game,” center Jason Kelce said. “You want to be able to function as an offense. You don’t want to have to make any drastic changes. The production might not be the same as a Jason Peters, and you don’t want to see gross errors, or always have to send chip help.”
The Eagles didn’t use a tight end or running back to help Dillard at all against the Bills. He was charged with two sacks surrendered, but the second one was a blitz for which Dillard was not responsible, said left guard Isaac Seumalo. Dillard has committed zero penalties in his 180 snaps as Peters’ stand-in.
Why the slow start? Too much talent, apparently.
“A lot of athletic guys, including myself, have to learn actually when to slow down. You don’t have to go 100 miles per hour. Some plays it’s better to go about 25 miles per hour,” Seumalo explained. “That makes the game a lot easier. Instead of relying on your athleticism, know where to be and when to be there, and do the least amount possible.”
Seumalo agreed that Dillard will have to gain weight and strength -- Peters, at 6-4, is listed as 30 pounds heavier, but it’s more like 40 -- but, Lawson’s bull rush notwithstanding, Dillard can be plenty effective right now.
And he’s a fast learner.
Yes, Lawson bulldozed him in the first quarter, but he handled Lawson on Alshon Jeffery’s 11-yard catch in the second quarter, blocked Lawson twice on a circus drop by tight end Zach Ertz, and he manhandled Lawson when Ertz caught the 18-yard third-down conversion in the middle of the fourth quarter that set up the sealing touchdown in the 31-13 win.
Dillard also sealed his edge on Miles Sanders’ 65-yard touchdown run on the second play of the third quarter. When Boston Scott plunged in 9 minutes later, he followed Andre Dillard.
“I just got into a rhythm,” Dillard said afterward, smiling.
He doesn’t talk much, likely a by-product of his training camp kerfluffles that cast him as a hothead. In August, Pederson said that Dillard’s situation -- a first-round pick, the first tackle taken in the draft, trying to justify the pick -- spurred the dustups.
Everyone is aware of the pedigree.
“He’s a first-round pick, so the expectations are a little bit higher,” Kelce said.
Sunday, the expectations were met.
“He played well," Pederson said. "That’s encouraging."
He sounded relieved.