Beginning with Game 13 at Dallas, the Eagles have faced a gantlet of elite pass rushers. They combined for 97 sacks. Against the Eagles, they combined for two.
How did the Birds prepare for this onslaught?
With an undrafted, unrecruited, rookie defensive end from their practice squad with doughnuts in his DNA.
“I’m going to tell you, Joe Ostman — he was Khalil Mack last week, he’s been Aaron Donald,” coach Doug Pederson explained Monday. “He gives us great looks. Really, that’s where it starts.”
“I’m glad you asked me about Joe,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Tuesday. "He embraces the number or jersey we put on him. We’ve played some excellent pass rushers over the stretch of games here. He’s usually been that guy, whether it be Aaron Donald or Khalil Mack or Jadeveon Clowney or J.J. Watt, all these really great pass rushers that we’ve played against. Joe has helped prepare the offensive line for that challenge, and our offensive line has risen to the challenge.”
This is the essence of the Eagles' strength. The personnel decisions by Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas go far beyond backups such as Nick Foles and Avonte Maddox; they dive so deep that practice-squad afterthoughts can contribute. Moreover, coaching the least important players on the payroll eventually enables those players to perform hidden tasks that are then brought to light by ego-free coaches.
Which brings us to the baker’s son.
Ostman (rhymes with postman), a 23-year-old NFL understudy, prepares for his roles with the thoroughness of Anthony Hopkins. If J.J Watt likes fava beans and Chianti, Ostman knows.
Consider his notes on Demarcus Lawrence, the first role Ostman was asked to play, as the Eagles prepared to play the Cowboys in Game 13.
“He has a nice cross-chop,” Ostman said Tuesday after lunch at the Eagles' practice facility. “That’s his go-to move on the edge.”
Ostman mimicked Lawrence so well that, the next week, Pederson made him Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Ostman couldn’t decide which move was Donald’s best: the rip, the spin, or the arm-over (a swim-type move), because Donald might use any of them, or all of them, during a single play.
“You notice how relentless Donald is. Different moves every snap. Always in your face,” Ostman said. “He’s not just bringing one move. He always has a counter to it. He might backdoor a gap. He might shoot the gap front-side.”
Notably, Donald is a 300-pound interior lineman who routinely sheds 650-pound double-teams. Ostman weighs 258.
“Yeah, I played two-technique,” he said, referring to the defensive tackle’s positioning directly in front of a guard.
That was a long week.
Donald was so hard to copy that the next week’s assignment — Texans ends J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney — was a cakewalk (rim shot).
Ostman saw that Watt’s weapons vary on the conditions — he’ll use an outside move if the lineman is too far away, or he’ll swat-and-swim if the lineman is off-balance — while “Clowney’s inside move is really dangerous." Eagles tackle Jason Peters can now attest to that.
Next: Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, and, if the Eagles were lucky enough to face the Bears in the wild-card playoff round, Khalil Mack. Both love the “long-arm” — they come running full-bore and extend one powerful arm, jamming their hand under a blocker’s shoulder pads or straight into his chest, knocking him off balance. It looks like a knight on a galloping horse using his lance.
“Kerrigan’s kind of similar to Mack; they both have long arms," Ostman said. Kerrigan’s arms are 33 3/8 inches, and Mack’s are just a quarter-inch shorter. “They like attacking you with speed, hitting you with that long-arm move. That’s kind of their go-to move.”
And Cam Jordan, the pass-rusher the Eagles face in their divisional playoff game Sunday at New Orleans? Ostman was cagey. He planned to fire up his iPad and study Jordan more Tuesday night, he said. All he would volunteer: “He’s got a good edge rush.”
He’d know more Wednesday morning, he said. He’d know everything Wednesday morning. Even if he had to work all night.
The Mackinaw Bakery, a third-generation establishment in the Upper Peninsula town of Mackinaw City, Mich., opens at 6 a.m., seven days a week. That means, at 3 a.m., it’s time to make the doughnuts. And, yes, Joe Ostman, with a body like a brick wall and a head like a cinder block, makes the doughnuts. And the pastries. Around the clock, if necessary.
“On Labor Day and the Fourth of July, we’d work all night,” Ostman said. “I can do everything. Rolling dough. Pumping flour. Raising doughnuts. Glazin' ‘em. Fryin’ 'em. When they get busy at the register, I’ll come out and help the ladies out front."
The bakery has a coffee bar, too. So, if any Eagles want a frothy cappuccino, they can ask Joe the Barista.
“Yeah,” he said, bowing his head of long, dark hair, "I can make lattes, too.”
Has he seen the commercial with tough-guy Titans teammates Brian Orakpo and Michael Griffin making fancy little cupcakes in their pastel cupcake shoppe? He laughed.
“We’ve been doing it a little bit longer,” he said. “But those cupcakes look good.”
Ostman’s work ethic is hereditary. His father, also Joe, is the head baker. His mother, Angie, was a shift-work nurse when Joe and his sister, Abbey, younger by two years, were little.
Players are off on Tuesdays, though many come to the facility for treatment, for film work, for a workout, for a team-prepared meal specific to a player’s dietary needs. As of Tuesday, of the 168 days since the Eagles reported for training camp, Ostman had been in the facility on 164 of them.
“I took four days off to go home over the bye week,” Ostman said. He helped out in the bakery, of course.
Ostman worked just as hard at LaSalle High to catch the eye of college recruiters, but recruiters don’t flock to see a 6-2, 220-pound defensive end at Division Eight schools with 200 students. His hometown, St. Ignace, is Mackinaw City’s twin. It sits on the north side of the Mackinac Bridge, which spans the straits of the same name that connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. It’s about 200 miles north of Toronto (check your maps).
The remote location didn’t deter Dan Enos, who was Central Michigan’s coach in 2013. It deterred everyone else.
“They were the only team that offered me a scholarship,” Ostman said. “That was a pretty big day for me.”
He thought it was a pretty bad day two years later, when Enos left Central Michigan to become Arkansas' offensive coordinator (he’s now Alabama’s OC). It turned out to be a blessing for Ostman.
The Chippewas hired alum John Bonamego. Three years later, Ostman led the nation with 13 sacks.
Again, the next level ignored him. Nobody drafted him. He’s a talented athlete — a three-time state wrestling champion who played tight end in high school; Jon Gruden and the Raiders had him visit as a prospective fullback — but his legs are a little too short for his torso, and he played in the MAC, and … well, you’ve heard it all before.
“The chip on my shoulder has never been bigger,” Ostman said.
Lane Johnson, Chris Long: Get this kid a dog mask.
“He’s always had that underdog mentality,” Bonamego said. He knew that would makes Ostman a perfect Eagle, so he used his Philadelphia connections. Bonamego had coached special teams in Green Bay, where Pederson was his holder in 2003 and 2004.
“Best holder I ever coached,” said Bonamego, who coached special teams for 16 years in the NFL before he landed at Central Michigan. One of those years, 2013, he was Jim Schwartz’s special-teams coach in Detroit.
He steered Ostman toward the Eagles because he knew Ostman would flourish. It’s a stable staff obsessed with teaching and developing players, with a state-of-the-art sports science infrastructure and a roster full of welcoming veterans who could help Ostman master Schwartz’s wide-nine alignment.
Bonamego also lobbied the Eagles to offer Ostman a generous contract for an undrafted player. He promised them Ostman would be a bargain.
“At the end of the draft, Philly reached out earlier than most teams,” Ostman said “I looked at it as a good opportunity to learn from the guys that were already here.”
He seldom has more than 48 hours to master that week’s role, but he’s obsessed with learning, and capable; with a 3.68 grade-point average in general management, he lived on the dean’s List at Central Michigan. Besides, Ostman has been studying this way for years. In college, he watched NFL stars such as Mack and Von Miller, sure, but he focused on players with body types like his.
“I watched guys like Melvin Ingram. Yannick Ngakoue,” he said. Ingram, 6-2 and 247 pounds, has 36 sacks for the Chargers in the past three seasons. Ngakoue, 6-2 and 246, has 29 1/2 sacks for the Jaguars in his three years.
Ostman might never amass as many sacks as they have, but he might latch on for a long time as a special-teams player, or a pass-rush specialist, or a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Bonamego said. Plus, Ostman has spent the last six weeks perfecting the best moves of the best linemen.
“Mimicking these great pass rushers has allowed me to find out what works for me. Getting reps at different types of moves that I wouldn’t do every day, I feel like it’s helped me a lot,” Ostman said.
Enough to make the team next year?
“I’d never count him out of anything. It’s not surprising at all to hear what he’s doing for the Eagles,” Bonamego said.
As a special-teams coach who harvests his units from the edges of the roster, Bonamego has a special appreciation for how tenuous a practice-squad spot can be. Players such as Ostman usually hop on and off squads during a season. The Eagles kept Ostman close and well-paid all year.
“That," Bonamego said, "along with Doug’s comments, he’s somebody they certainly value.”