Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland is not one to complain, but, yeah, this has been a challenge.
The team will roll out its 10th starting O-line combination in 11 games Monday night when the Eagles host the Seattle Seahawks.
Jason Peters, in his 17th in NFL season, battling turf toe, is scheduled to start at right guard, for the first time, in the 212th game of his career. Jordan Mailata will move back in at left tackle, where he played when Peters was injured earlier this season. This ought to please a fan base that is eager to establish things the 3-6-1 team can build on, looking to 2021.
Matt Pryor moves from right guard to right tackle. Only left guard Isaac Seumalo and center Jason Kelce are unchanged from last week.
Stoutland feels good about all of those moves, he said Saturday, but there is no getting around the fact that of all years, this was not the one to have every starter except Kelce miss games. Mailata, a former rugby player from Australia, had never played a regular-season snap before this season, and Pryor was only slightly more experienced.
“Here’s the biggest thing: Around here ... with the offseason and the OTAs, we make so much hay. This is where you build your foundation,” Stoutland said. There was no on-field offseason or OTA work this year, because of the pandemic.
Stoutland said that in a normal year, when he has to sub a backup for a starter, he tells that player, “OK, remember we did all these things in the offseason, we worked on all these departure angles, we worked on all the surfacing of these blocks?”
Stoutland says there is a comfort level achieved from doing these things on the field that can’t be acquired through film study or Zoom sessions. That comfort level just isn’t possible, so he is coping as best he can.
“What’s really saving me, to be honest with you, I really focus on what we’re doing in the moment, what we’re doing for that particular game and that game plan.” he said. “And I really try hard -- I try my butt off -- to not think of anything else, don’t be distracted, focus on teaching the player exactly the line you want him to take, or how to surface this particular guy, this jersey number guy, he does something a little different than that guy. ... We have no control of it. ... We still got to go out there and perform and execute.”
Stoutland said he isn’t worried about Peters’ not having enough of a foundation at right guard. He said that when the O-line worked on combination blocks Friday, “I was just amazed at how he sees angles. He’s almost like an artist. It doesn’t matter what position he plays, he understands. Visually, he gets it. Kelce and him were trying to talk through the block, and [Peters] is like, ‘Come on, let’s just go do it.’ And he’s really just a natural.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Saturday that the moves became necessary when the team determined right tackle Lane Johnson couldn’t play any more this season on his injured ankle.
“I’m excited for J.P. He’s excited, a great opportunity for him,” Pederson said.
Peters endured one of the worst games of his distinguished career last Sunday at Cleveland, giving up three of the Browns’ five sacks. At guard, he won’t have to cover as much ground in pass protection as he would at tackle, but he’ll have less of a cushion when dealing with defensive linemen. He’ll also face more twists and stunts.
The Eagles allowed Peters, 38, to head into free agency last spring, because of his age and injury history. But when right guard Brandon Brooks tore an Achilles tendon in June, they brought Peters back to play right guard. He’d begun his NFL career as an undrafted tight end in Buffalo, where he also played some right tackle, most recently in 2006.
Peters practiced at right guard in training camp until his left tackle replacement, Andre Dillard, suffered a season-ending biceps injury. Peters didn’t move back to left tackle until just before the season opener, as the Eagles eventually agreed to add money to his contract for playing the higher-profile position.
Peters missed four games with the turf toe problem and was ably replaced by Mailata, who looked raw but showed a lot of potential.
“He’s been consistent. He played good the other day” at Cleveland, Pederson said. Mailata filled in at left tackle, at right tackle, and then back at left tackle for Peters and Johnson as they became hobbled, Peters leaving, returning, and leaving again.
Mailata was asked Saturday if he sees this as a chance to establish himself as the starting left tackle, heading into next season.
“I’m not trying to do me first. I’m trying to do what I can for this team,” he said.
Many observers were surprised when, during the brief period that Peters and Johnson were both healthy, Mailata went to the bench. Asked Saturday what he thinks he needs to do better, Mailata said: “I think just more technique-wise, just when it comes down to getting off the ball on time, spatial awareness when I time up my punching. Yeah, those are the couple things that I’m going into this week being more aware of.”
In his three-year quest to learn American football, Mailata has often used peanuts as an image, when quantifying his progress. One day early on, in May 2018, Mailata said: “Before, I had one peanut. Now I have two peanuts.”
Saturday, he offered that he now has half a bag but remains far behind “the Jason Peters peanut factory.”
Stoutland said Mailata has improved greatly with regard to the spatial awareness issue Mailata mentioned.
“I’m watching and I’m like, ‘Right now, he’s got the timing factor, Jordan does.’ He knows when that guy is closing in on him. Prior to this, a couple of weeks ago, he was struggling with that, in my opinion,” Stoutland said.
Asked how he got the news that he was back in the lineup, Mailata said: “I was just chilling on the couch at home, falling asleep, actually, and I got a call. Lucky I woke up to it, because it was Coach Stout telling me that I was going to play left tackle this week, and that was about it, really. I was like ‘Cool.’”
Pryor, a starter for six games this season at right guard, played some right tackle last week at Cleveland, when injuries dictated that the team use all nine offensive linemen who were active. Stoutland mentioned the same issue with Pryor that Mailata brought up, which Stoutland said is resolved only through experience.
He said Pryor, 6-foot-7, 332, has all the tools, but “for Matt, it’s the detail. All the little things that go into, ‘Where’s my angle, where’s the defender lined up? ... When I see that defender closing in on me, at what point in time am I going to be ready to take him on with my hands, keeping my head and shoulders out?’