Jeff Stoutland was a little groggy during his Friday afternoon news conference.
It’s understandable, given the circumstances. Stoutland didn’t take much time to celebrate once the Eagles returned from San Francisco last Sunday with their first win of the season, a 25-20 victory against the 49ers in which Stoutland was charged with preparing four backup offensive linemen to play a role in the primetime game.
Instead of admiring the Eagles' ability to contain the Niners' pass rush with Jordan Mailata, Nate Herbig, and Matt Pryor starting along the offensive front and Jack Driscoll coming in at times for Lane Johnson, Stoutland got started on the Pittsburgh Steelers. This Sunday’s game at Heinz Field will put the group of young players against a Steelers defense that blitzes on a league-high 51% of its snaps and is third in the NFL in sacks.
“I’m really tired right now, that trip took a lot out of me," Stoutland said. “I’m still feeling it a little bit because I got off that plane and came right in here and started game-planning.”
Likely consumed by the task of developing a trio of starters with very limited playing experience, Stoutland said speaking with reporters helped him refocus on the big picture: He’d be getting more sleep if the Eagles weren’t down four starters right now.
“The first thing I should have said when I sat down here is how much I miss Brandon Brooks, Isaac Seumalo, Jason Peters, and Andre Dillard,” Stoutland said. “Those are really good players, man. ... To have those guys not around is different.”
With Brooks and Dillard out for the year and Seumalo and Peters expected to miss significant time, one of the biggest differences for Stoutland has apparently come in the offensive line meeting room. Stoutland, the team’s run-game coordinator and offensive line coach, has apparently ratcheted up the intensity during his sessions going through film with the O-line.
“Our meetings are really kind of a war zone,” Johnson said. “You go in there, it doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or practice squad, he treats everybody the same. He expects everybody to know what they’re doing; if you’re playing guard or tackle or playing different positions, he demands that. If you’re not up to speed, he’ll let you know about it.
“Just by the way he prepares everybody everyday, when something like this does occur, it’s doesn’t get too out of hand,” Johnson added.
The Eagles haven’t had the same five players across the offensive line in consecutive games all season. Still, the early returns on Stoutland’s work have been promising. The Eagles are fifth in the NFL in pass-rush win rate, a stat from ESPN which tracks how often an O-Line maintains a clean pocket for 2.5 seconds. The Eagles, even with all the injuries, are doing so half the time.
This Sunday will be the stiffest test yet, though. The Steelers have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, led by edge rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. The Steelers' constant blitzing could pose problems for the offensive front considering the lack of experience playing together and handling pressure. But Johnson says they’ll have their hands full enough with Watt and Dupree off the edge in tandem with defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward.
“I’d be more worried about the people in front of you,” Johnson said. “That’s like telling people to worry about the hyenas when you got lions in front of you.”
Opposite Johnson, Mailata will make his second career start at left tackle. Mailata’s first start — the first time the former Australian rugby star started a football game in his life — was impressive. He allowed just one pressure in 38 pass-blocking snaps.
Earlier Friday, Eagles' coach Doug Pederson wouldn’t rule out Mailata keeping the starting left tackle job even after Jason Peters returns from injury.
“As long as he plays well, right now, in the near future, it’s his job,” Pederson said. “But, at the same time, we understand that when JP is healthy, that’s a decision that we are going to have to make at that particular time. We are focused on this week, getting Jordan ready to go.”
Stoutland has developed the 23-year-old Mailata over the last three seasons from a rugby player new to football to an NFL starter with the potential for prolonged success.