After the Eagles’ first three possessions against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon, there was no doubt which team was in control of the game.
We’ll get to the before-and-after statistics in a few paragraphs, but the start of the game gave no hint that it would eventually become a 17-10 soul-gnawing loss in which the home team left the field to a round of boos from the few who remained mostly for that purpose.
When those opening three possessions finished, the Eagles had a 10-0 lead. On defense, they were frustrating Tom Brady by stifling the Patriots’ running game and then bringing pressure to hurry his throws. On offense, Doug Pederson was going with a balanced attack despite the absence of Jordan Howard, and Carson Wentz led the team to its double-digit lead with a 16-play, 95-yard drive that ate up much of the first quarter and went nearly three minutes into the second quarter.
Things were looking pretty good for a repeat of the Super Bowl result at that point, but only if you didn’t also look at the sideline where offensive right tackle Lane Johnson was being evaluated for a possible concussion before being taken to the locker room on a cart.
Johnson didn’t return and neither the offense, nor the game, was the same again.
The Eagles’ defense kept doing a good job against Brady, limiting the Patriots to three field goals in the first half on two red-zone opportunities and a third drive that went as far as the 20-yard line. The defense allowed a touchdown that opened the second half and gave New England its 17-10 lead, but the final six Patriots possessions ended in punts.
Against an offense that hasn’t been great by Brady’s previous standards, but still averages about 25 points per game, it was a performance worthy of a win. Unfortunately, the Eagles offense couldn’t keep up, and couldn’t score a single point in the final 43 minutes, 30 seconds of the game.
If that seems like a lot to place on the absence of Lane Johnson, well, it does seem like a lot. But when he left the domino chain that is the offense began to topple over.
“Any time you lose a player of that caliber, it’s going to hurt you,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “Guys like Lane Johnson don’t grow on trees. We really didn’t change the game plan. We kept doing the same things, but you don’t replace a guy like Lane Johnson.”
Because the wide receiving corps is so depleted, the tight ends and running backs are some of the best weapons in the passing scheme, and not as available to help in pass protection. Because Johnson is excellent at both run and pass blocking, replacing him with Halapoulivaati Vaitai is a significant step down.
Losing Johnson left Wentz vulnerable, and also brought the running game to a halt. Pederson scrambled to such an extent that he sent rookie Andre Dillard to line up at the tight end position on a number of snaps, with almost uniformly dissatisfying results. Late in the game, things got uglier when left tackle Jason Peters limped to the sideline and missed some plays, moving Vaitai to the left side and putting Dillard at right tackle.
“I went in and did the best I could,” Dillard said, of being used as a tight end. “But it wasn’t good. I haven’t practiced that in a long time. It’s completely different. A lot of people don’t know how tough it is for O-linemen to play in different spots.”
The loss of Johnson, and the result of it, points up just how tenuous the offensive line position is for the Eagles. Another injury for Peters – although he returned to the game – is worrisome that he could miss more time, too.
Just when the Eagles are coming out of a period during which injuries in the defensive backfield tormented the team, the situation on the offensive line could become the next trouble spot. Add that to the receiving situation and the offense would be really hampered.
The breakdown from Sunday is stark. Before Johnson left the game, as the Eagles built their 10-0 lead, the team ran the ball 10 times, threw it eight times, allowed zero sacks, and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
After Johnson left, in that final 43:30 of the game, Pederson called 11 runs and 33 passes. (Wentz was sacked on five of the pass calls.) The runs averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
There were other factors, of course. The Patriots are famous for their in-game and halftime adjustments, but the largest factor was unquestionably playing without perhaps the best right tackle in football.
Sure, he’s just one guy, but that’s really the point. If one guy can make that much of a difference, the Eagles are operating without much of a safety net this season.