Unless something untoward happens Friday or Saturday, the Eagles will experience their very own post-Christmas miracle when they take the field Sunday at Dallas.
This week, nobody has to update the stat about how the team’s starting offensive line has changed every week. It’s stuck on an NFL-record 13 starting O-lines in 14 games, because the Week 16 line is scheduled to be the same five guys who started last week’s 33-26 loss at Arizona: Jordan Mailata at left tackle, Isaac Seumalo at left guard, Jason Kelce at center, Nate Herbig at right guard, and Matt Pryor at right tackle.
Is this why the Eagles are favored by a couple of points? Probably not. The current line features the third-string right tackle (Pryor) and it managed to get Jalen Hurts sacked half-a-dozen times by the Cardinals. In fact, the Eagles almost certainly would be better off if the line were changing again, assuming that meant that either Lane Johnson or Jack Driscoll would be back, in place of Pryor, instead of those two being done for the season. Or if it meant that Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks were recovered from Achilles surgery and ready to make his season debut, instead of Herbig.
But those things are not possible. The current group gaining cohesion through continuity is possible, especially since it is facing the worst defense against the run in the NFL.
“It’s the second time we’ve had the starting five together this season,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Thursday. “And you just see the communication with these guys in practice ... they’re not having to learn, and look over, and, [say], ‘OK, there’s Jack Driscoll to my right or Matt Pryor is now playing the left side, or [Jordan] Mailata is back on the right side.’ It’s having that stability, and that communication. Really goes a long way in how well these guys can play.”
Pederson said players “getting reps at that position and that position only ought to be a big help.”
The offensive line, in some ways, is the story of the Eagles’ 4-9-1 season. Yes, the enduring story is Carson Wentz/Jalen Hurts, but if Brooks, Johnson, and Seumalo had been healthy all season, it’s likely that Wentz would never have been benched, and that the Eagles would be locking down the NFC East title this week, instead of trying to beat the Cowboys while they hope for an upset of Washington from 4-10 Carolina.
Left tackle Mailata said that as used to constant shuffling this season as the O-line is, “looking back at last week’s game, it’s kind of good that we have the same line going into this week; we can work on the corrections we need to make as a unit.”
Holding the group together might not be why center Jason Kelce made the Pro Bowl again this year, but it probably should have been high on the list.
“You guys don’t understand how grateful we are as an offensive line to have, or as an offense to have, Jason Kelce,” said Mailata, a former rugby player from Australia who had never played in a football game that mattered at any level before this season. “It’s like having two QBs out there. Honestly, it slows down the game so much. He explains what angle to take, and why we do certain things, when we’re hitting blocks or executing techniques. Jason Kelce, man, he’s the man. He’s the guy.”
Running back Miles Sanders said Thursday that there are two reasons he never worries about changes on the line in front of him.
“Yeah, the line has been changing every week, but when you’ve got a coach like [offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland] and you’ve got a center like Jason Kelce, it doesn’t really matter who else is on the offensive line,” Sanders said. “Not to discredit the rest of the offensive linemen, but those two are key parts of our offensive line, and to be honest, our offense. They handle a lot of stuff with the calls and getting us in the right place.
“The whole year, despite all the different substitutions and lineups, I honestly think the line’s been doing a heck of a job with it.”
Sanders, who also has battled injury, goes into the final two games with 810 yards on 149 carries, 5.4 yards per carry. He still has an outside shot at 1,000 yards, especially if he has a big day at Dallas.