You know Lane Johnson’s feeling good when he celebrates like a wide receiver.
And when Lane’s feeling good, the Eagles have a chance.
In the season-saving win against the Giants last week, Johnson’s finest moment followed Josh Adams' 11-yard run that set up the Eagles' go-ahead touchdown. Johnson attacked former teammate Connor Barwin; stood him up, then, 5 yards downfield, boxed him out, like he used box out opponents when he played basketball back at Groveton (Texas) High. Finally, Johnson collapsed on top of Barwin.
He wasn’t finished.
Johnson sprang to his feet and, like a prima-donna wideout, motioned “First down!” That brought a smile to his coach’s face. Doug Pederson knows: As Lane Johnson goes, so goes his offense.
“You see it with his excitement and enthusiasm in plays and after runs,” Pederson said Saturday. "You see him down the field, whether it’s a first down or a sign or something in the end zone: He’s excitable. That kind of fuels your group, kind of fuels your offensive line, No. 1. It feeds to the rest of the team, because the guys notice that. The defense notices that.
“Yeah. He’s playing like the old Lane Johnson. ... I’m excited with where he’s at and look forward to these next few weeks with him at that level.”
What level? Pro Bowl-starter level. First-team All-Pro level. Super Bowl-champion level. Johnson, healthier than he has been in weeks, has returned to just just in time. The Eagles are 5-6, two games behind the Cowboys and a game behind the Redskins, who visit Monday night. As Johnson struggled, the offense that won a Super Bowl last season became a shadow of its former self.
The Eagles average 20.9 points per game, 23rd in the league and almost eight fewer than 2017, when they ranked third. The main reason: spotty play of the offensive line, which fingers Johnson more than any other player. He’s the best right tackle in the NFL. When he plays well, Carson Wentz stays protected; the tight ends are freer to roam; the run game can be unstoppable.
When he doesn’t, the guy who started the dog-mask craze last season probably wanted a disguise for other reasons.
As the defense is built around Fletcher Cox, the $102 million defensive tackle the Eagles drafted 12th overall in 2012, the offense is built around Johnson, the $56 million right tackle the Eagles drafted fourth overall in 2013. They are the highest-paid Eagles because they’re the best Eagles. Maybe not the most valuable -- that’s Wentz -- but the best. When Johnson hasn’t been suspended for enhancing his performance with drugs (twice) and when he isn’t hurt, he’s been worth the pick; worth every penny. His celebrations are just a bonus.
The Eagles hope Johnson celebrates a lot Monday night against Ryan Kerrigan. He has 10½ of his 79½ career sacks in his 14 games against the Eagles, his highest sack rate against any opponent. It’s not as if he has dominated Johnson, exactly; 3½ of those sacks came in the two 2016 meetings while Johnson served his second PED suspension. Last season, Johnson gave up a half-sack to Kerrigan in the season opener. At least now he’s closer to whole.
Johnson suffered a high ankle sprain in Game 5 against the Vikings, but he’d played appreciably worse in the three games before that loss. He then sprained his left MCL in Game 8 against Jacksonville in London, which should have cost him a month. However, he healed during the bye week and practiced lightly the following week while wearing a bulky brace but did not play. He returned for Game 10 in New Orleans, and, understandably, he was awful.
Johnson shed the brace last Sunday and had his best game of the season.
“I just don’t like wearing it. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve been rehabbing most of the days,” Johnson said.
It might be risky to play without it, but, hey, whatever works.
“He’s really in a good place mentally, physically,” Pederson said. “He’s playing back to the Lane Johnson [level] that we all know he can play.”
Johnson wasn’t perfect against the Giants. Kareem Martin beat him on Corey Clement’s fruitless run near the middle of the second quarter, and Martin stalemated Johnson on the first play of the Eagles’ fourth-quarter touchdown drive, but from that point Johnson dominated.
He stoned Martin on the 23-yard screen pass to Clement, then washed out three defenders on Clement’s 8-yard run. He sealed B.J. Hill and helped Adams gain 15, and then dominated Barwin on the first-down run that followed. Johnson beat Josh Mauro and Adams gained 3 more, to the Giants' 1. Adams spurted past Johnson and into the end zone on the next play. The Eagles took a 20-19 lead and tried a two-point conversion, behind Johnson again. He caught a piece of Hill on his way to flattening safety Landon Collins.
As Adams scored, Johnson shoved free safety Curtis Riley for good measure.
Notably, every play in the most important touchdown drive went to the right side. Right guard Brandon Brooks has played well at times this season but, clearly, Johnson carries the weight.
“You do have a lot of confidence, obviously, when you’re calling runs to maybe lean that way,” said Pederson.
At halftime against the Giants, Johnson begged Pederson to lean on him.
“We were able to take over in the second half,” Johnson said. “I felt like I’m close to getting my body back where it needs to be. I’m getting my suddenness back. It felt good, man. Maybe we can get a late surge down the stretch here.”
If there is a surge, you’ll know it’s coming from the right side of the line.