The Eagles’ offensive line has played more consistently the last two games. It’s a small sample, but if the Eagles are to beat the Cowboys on Sunday and make a run to the postseason, the Jason Peters-Lane Johnson-Jason Kelce-Brandon Brooks-Isaac Seumalo unit will have to continue to play at that level.
In fact, if there’s reason to believe, it’s because the o-line can dominate up front. The New York Giants and Redskins, the Eagles’ previous two opponents, have their issues. But their defensive fronts aren’t among them. The o-line won significantly more than it lost at the point of attack.
Doug Pederson said that health had been an issue. He said that his linemen are starting to jell. The players, for the most part, point to the coach’s balanced play-calling for the recent improvement.
“I don’t want to make any excuses, but it seems like we finally got that figured out, or at least we’re starting to click,” center Jason Kelce said. “That just opens up a lot of other things for the rest of the offense, and it makes the defense play more honest.”
In the Eagles’ first 10 games, their run-pass ratio was 37-63. In their last two, it was 46-54. Teams that run simply for the sake of running, or that are overly conservative, are typically losing teams in today’s NFL. If defenses are going to stack the box, then it would defy logic to hand the ball off.
Even in the Eagles’ win over the Redskins, they passed (20 times) more on first down than they ran (14 times). They got ahead early, regained the lead before the half, and never trailed in the second half. That is a recipe for staying balanced.
But Pederson recognized that his offense – particularly, his line – needed enough of a mix to keep pass rushers at bay. This year’s group, despite the familiar faces, isn’t as cohesive as last year’s. The 2017 version was so in sync that it could sustain the loss of left tackle Jason Peters and integrate the unpredictable Halapoulivaati Vaitai into the lineup without missing a beat.
When Vaitai had to start for injured right tackle Lane Johnson in the first meeting with the Cowboys this season, it was a struggle. Johnson is back and could be the difference in Dallas. He still has lingering issues after multiple left leg issues – a high ankle sprain and an MCL tear – but he is seemingly rounding into his 2017 form.
“It’s the healthiest I’ve been all season,” Johnson said.
He will need to be near his best to handle Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Here’s why Johnson and the o-line give the Eagles their best chance at winning down the stretch:
Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said before the Redskins game that he saw signs of improvement from his unit, particularly in pass protection. He said that the pocket had become consistently firm enough for quarterback Carson Wentz to stand and comfortably go through his reads.
On this early third-and-9 against Washington, Wentz (No. 11) didn’t need a whole lot of time before hitting the slanting Alshon Jeffery (No. 17), but he had a clean pocket, thanks in part, to a blitz pickup by running back Corey Clement (No. 30):
Stoutland said that when the pocket resembles a horseshoe, the line has done its job.
Wentz wasn’t sacked and he was hit only three times – both were season lows. Pederson helped, at times, by moving the pocket with nakeds and bootlegs. But on third downs, the throws typically had to come on straight drops.
On this third-quarter third-and-5, the Redskins could pin their ears back. The protection wasn’t perfect. Linebacker Pernell McPhee (No. 96) broke the horseshoe with an inside move. But Peters (No. 71) held him off and Wentz had three seconds to go to his second read – Jeffery again.
Johnson: Any time we can keep anybody off Carson’s he’s going to make big plays for us.
Johnson has had a long-running feud with Redskins edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan (No. 91), who has won his share. But Monday, the tackle got the upper hand. On this second-and-4, Josh Adams (No. 33) ran into a roadblock when the left side of the line couldn’t create a hole on an inside zone. But Johnson (65) and Brooks (79) walled off the right side, and when Adams kicked outside, he had a path to an 11-yard gain.
Several plays later, Johnson was matched up alone vs. linebacker Ryan Anderson (52). Peters used to be the quickest off the snap, but Johnson has increasingly been first this season. He contained Anderson for nearly six seconds as Wentz waited and waited until he stepped up and hit Golden Tate (19) for a touchdown.