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:
Working as one
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.
Kelce has been playing hurt nearly all season. He injured his knee on one of the first plays of the first game, and banged up his elbow vs. the Saints.
Stoutland: I don’t think there’s anything about that guy that’s selfish. This guy is giving it his all every day. He’s banged up. I was on the bench during the Saints game, and they wouldn’t let him go on the field. They had to chain him up. He wanted to go back on the field to play with his buddies.
Kelce returned the following week and continued his dependable play. Early in the season, Pederson didn’t call as many runs and screens that utilized Kelce’s athleticism in the open field, probably because of the knee. But there have been more of those plays in recent weeks, and not surprisingly, more success.
On this second quarter screen, Kelce (62) led the way for Clement, who likely could have gained more than 11 yards had he turned the corner.
Pederson: Any time that a defense wants to uncover the center with either two two-techniques or three-techniques or whatever it is, it allows for Jason to use his strength and one of his strengths is his speed and quickness and agility down the field.
Two plays later, the Eagles ran an outside zone they’ve had great success with over the years. Seumalo trapped the nose tackle, Kelce pulled and blocked the front-side linebacker, and running back Darren Sproles followed his lead for a 14-yard score.
After fending off linebacker Mason Foster (No. 54) with one arm, Kelce switched off and took out the safety.
Kelce: I had one guy with one arm and the other guy with the other arm. You’re running and you kind of have a good feeling for where the back is at, and the other guys come shooting down. You just try to get as big as possible.
Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh: He’s a special center, unique from an athletic standpoint, like you talk about in being able to get out on the perimeter.
Brooks is typically known for his run blocking, but he hasn’t allowed a sack all season. On Monday night, he owned standout rookie Da’Ron Payne.
Up front, there were few examples of the Eagles getting beat physically. When the line erred, as it did here on this fourth-and-1 rush at the goal line, it was mental.
Pederson: Just a failure to communicate up front and we just missed a block on the perimeter.
Johnson calls Brooks “Big Smooth.”
Johnson: He’s just one of those guys that’s just so physically imposing. He just makes it look so easy. When I’m working with him, as far as [double-team] blocking, or trying to move a guy downfield, he makes my job a lot easier.
Brooks has obvious size, but he’s more than nimble. On this game-sealing 11-yard carry by Clement – even when the Redskins knew the Eagles were running – he had Payne on his heels.
Peters has played through a quadriceps strain and a torn bicep and now has an ankle sprain to deal with after he was bent over backward late in the Redskins game.
Pederson: He’s going to be OK. He’s going to be day-to-day, but yeah, he should be fine.
Peters, it seemed, was still working his way back early this season after an October 2017 ACL injury. He struggled. At 36, he just isn’t the athletic freak he once was. Sproles could have bounced outside on this early third-down run, but the Peters of old would have pulled and gotten to the linebacker before he likely diagnosed the direction.
Every o-linemen gets beat. Peters has allowed only one sack this season, and he’s above the league average in pressures allowed, but there was once a time when few edge rushers were able to get outside him, let alone one of McPhee’s pedigree.
Peters has performed better in recent weeks and is still a physically imposing force, as he showed on this stretch run, but getting him to the finish line could be difficult.
Seumalo supplanted Stefen Wisniewski at left guard in Week 5. The difference has been marginal, but considering Seumalo’s youth, the move made sense. He has the physical tools, but he’s still learning to play at game speed. Getting to the second level on run plays can sometimes give him problems.
One-on-one pass blocking can be a struggle, as well. Seumalo allowed a team-high three hurries against the Redskins. If there is a weak link up front, it’s at right guard. But Kelce typically shades his help to Seumalo.
The Eagles compensated for Vaitai last season. They’ve done the same with Seumalo, although to a lesser extent. But it might be enough. It has to be if they are to finish the season with a playoff berth.