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Smallwood: Reich has maintained confidence about Eagles' o-line all along

AT THE TIME he said it, Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich sounded like a new coach speaking "coachish" about a group of players he was just starting to get familiar with.

AT THE TIME he said it, Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich sounded like a new coach speaking "coachish" about a group of players he was just starting to get familiar with.

During training camp, when many looked at the Eagles offensive line as a serious area for question, Reich expressed confidence.

"I've always felt, from Day 1, that the offensive line was a strength of this team," Reich said Tuesday as the Eagles prepared for their game Thursday night against the visiting New York Giants. "I think I've said that all year long.

"I know we've been beat up a lot. I've been in other places where we've been really beat up at the offensive line before, and this has just felt different. I just feel like, really, we have good depth."

Like every area of the Eagles, the offensive line will again be under scrutiny, as the team finishes up the season with the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field.

When a team is 5-8 and loser of five straight, small positives tend to look better.

The Eagles offensive line isn't the Oakland Raiders' of the 1970s - with future Hall of Famers Jim Otto, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw - but it is far from the hot mess many expected.

Adversity such as injury, illness and the 10-game drug suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson made the Eagles force rookies Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo into the lineup, and both showed they were more than just long-term projects.

Thirty-four-year old veteran Jason Peters had a miraculous bounce-back season and now looks like one of those offensive linemen who can be affective into their late 30s.

If Johnson, who has been suspended twice for using an illegal performance-enhancing drug, has finally learned his lesson, he can get back on track to becoming an All-Pro instead of an All-Knucklehead, beginning Thursday night against the Giants.

The Eagles were 3-1 and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz was humming along when Johnson began serving his suspension. Things quickly fell apart thereafter. Rarely has one offensive lineman taken so much heat for an entire season falling into disarray.

Johnson, 26, is an easy focal point for a lot of contributing forces, but he knows he put himself in this situation.

"I feel like I let the team down," said Johnson, whose five-year guaranteed contract turned into year-to-year deals because of the suspension. "I feel like we had momentum whenever I left, I feel like we should have been 4-0 after the Detroit game. It sucks the way it is.

"It's all on me. All I can do is go play. I can talk all day about it, but it's really going to be showing and proving that through the rest of my contract.

"I still feel I'm one of the best right tackles in the league, if not the best right tackle that there is. Having said that, I've still got a lot to prove. I'm going to keep proving that every day that I'm out there."

That basically puts Johnson in the same category with every other offensive lineman.

"When Lane was here at the beginning of the year, we got off to a pretty good start," Reich said. "He was playing at a very high level.

"So, there are a lot of ways to lead, but the No. 1 way to lead is by great play on the field and lead by example by the way you play on the field.

"We expect to come back and set the bar very high like he did for himself going forward."

There are still plenty of issues. Wentz, for instance, is tied for ninth in the league, having been sacked 31 times, and he's been hit over 70 times.

Still, in a season when all praises come with qualifiers, Reich said the offensive line is an area that has built a base.

"I think, at this point, there have been some ups and downs to the season - certainly a few more downs than we wanted," Reich conceded. "But one of the real positives is all our drafts picks have really looked good, played well, have continued to get better and show a lot of promise going forward.

"(Eagles executive vice president of football operations) Howie (Roseman) and Doug (Pederson) sat down in the offseason and said the goal was to build some depth on this offensive line.

"We drafted a couple guys; we signed a guy. I think all of those things were really good for us. I think it is an area of strength.

"I think (left tackle) Jason Peters is a dominant football player, and he's still playing at a dominant level. Now we got Lane back and some other young guys have played more. It puts us in a good position going forward."

Reich is one of the few people who expressed something like that from the beginning.