LANDOVER, Md. — It all starts up front. That’s what general managers and coaches like to say when they emphasize the importance of stacking the offensive and defensive lines.
But it can all end there, as well, particularly on the O-line, where cohesion is of the utmost importance. The Eagles’ 27-17 loss to the Washington Football Team on Sunday at FedEx Field highlighted what can happen when a unit is battered and its replacements inexperienced.
Carson Wentz was under siege almost all game and sacked a career-high eight times. And while he must own some of that misfortune for the occasions when he held the ball too long, a patchwork group that was without three starters struggled to protect the quarterback.
Washington’s defensive line is its strength. But the Eagles gift-wrapped the victory to a team that did very little offensively to win it. It was the first opening-day loss of the Doug Pederson era and it suggested that his team’s problems run deeper than the offensive line.
But other than losing Wentz for an extended period, the O-line can torpedo an entire season more than any position group. The Eagles have been unlucky with injuries. But there are likely more to come, which could prove fatal with the team’s inexperienced depth.
Will Lane Johnson, who missed the opener, ever be completely 100% following ankle surgery? Will 38-year-old Jason Peters, who looked every bit his 17 years older than Washington end Chase Young, hold up for an entire season?
And will youngsters Nate Herbig, Jack Driscoll, Jordan Mailata, and Matt Pryor deliver enough consistency when called upon? The opener, at least in the case of Herbig and Driscoll, didn’t provide reassuring answers.
“We got to be better up front, no excuses,” center Jason Kelce said. “I’ve had plenty of work with the guys who were out there today. I don’t think anybody in particular played individually a terrible game. … I think everybody kind of had their chances to screw this one up, myself included.”
The game film will provide clearer answers. But it wasn’t just failed technique or ability that led to eight sacks — the most the Eagles have allowed in nearly 13 years. It was a lack of chemistry caused in part by weeks of shuffling.
The Eagles' offensive-line woes began in the offseason when Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks ruptured an Achilles tendon, much as they did in 2012 when Peters suffered the same fate. Johnson opened camp healthy, but the ankle he played on when injured last season never properly healed, and a minor procedure to clean out loose cartilage was performed last month so that he wouldn’t miss much time. But he’s already sat for one game.
“I think it was trending in a good direction leading up to the game,” Kelce said of Johnson, who was listed as questionable. “He was really pushing it. He had a lot of moments where there’s a lot of swelling.”
The Eagles hid Johnson’s surgery, but they couldn’t hide left tackle Andre Dillard’s torn biceps days later. He would have to go on injured reserve. It wasn’t ideal, but Peters would have probably been an upgrade moving from right guard back to left tackle.
Peters refused. He wanted more money, which created 10 days of awkwardness in which Pederson was forced to make it seem like the “team captain” wasn’t being selfish and that Pryor, Driscoll, or Mailata was a better solution.
Peters eventually relented and got his restructured deal, but those were 10 days in which Driscoll and Herbig could have practiced alongside each other on the right flank.
“Any time you can disrupt your offensive line and lose some continuity there, it’s going to affect you a little bit,” Pederson said. “But one thing I like about our guys is it’s a resilient group. They don’t let the changes bother them.”
Driscoll appeared to fare better than Herbig. But he left in the second half with an unspecified injury and was replaced by Mailata. That Pryor, who had been hyped by Eagles coaches for the last three years, couldn’t beat out his younger competition said plenty about his readiness.
“We make these decisions based on quite a few factors,” Pederson said, “but we felt that Nate had a good week of practice.”
The same could be said of Mailata in terms of his readiness, or lack thereof, although the former rugby player was always a risky project. The Eagles will likely add a veteran this week. They worked out Cordy Glenn recently and might have decided to wait, in part, because they didn’t want to have to guarantee his salary for the season.
The Eagles brought in replacement after replacement as the 2012 nightmare unfolded. They’re likely trying to avoid band-aid free agents. You have to take a leap with your draft picks sometimes. But you can’t gamble on your quarterback’s health.
Wentz said he wasn’t skittish after the early hits, but his play regressed as the game went on. He said he was fine after the game. But the quarterback isn’t exactly known for his durability. And he doesn’t help matters with refusing to go down or throw the ball away.
Pederson will have to script a more conservative offense to account for the O-line. A 42-17 pass-to-run ratio Sunday wasn’t good enough.
The Eagles' 2012 implosion under Andy Reid wasn’t only because of the offensive-line injuries. There were many underlying issues with the team at that point. But the end of an era started with season-ending injuries to Peters and Kelce. Are the Eagles better equipped to handle a similar scenario now?
“Yeah, I certainly hope so, for sure,” Kelce said. “I think we have better depth on this line. … This is the way the season goes, right? At some point, you’re going to lose some guys, and guys are going to have to go in there and get the job done.”