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Domowitch: Lane Johnson gives Eagles what they were missing

IT PROBABLY would be overstating the importance of Lane Johnson to mention that the Eagles were 3-1 before he left on his 10-game all-expenses-PED vacation and 2-8 after his departure.

IT PROBABLY would be overstating the importance of Lane Johnson to mention that the Eagles were 3-1 before he left on his 10-game all-expenses-PED vacation and 2-8 after his departure.

And it also probably would be overstating his importance to point out that rookie quarterback Carson Wentz had a 103.5 passer rating with seven touchdown passes and just one interception and was halfway through the door at Canton with Johnson manning the right-tackle spot, and had 70.1 passer rating with six TDs and 12 interceptions when Allen Barbre and rookies Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo were trying to replace him.

But it's definitely not an overstatement to say that the Eagles' offense is much, much better with Johnson at right tackle than without him.

That was evident Thursday night as Johnson made his long-awaited return in the Eagles' 24-19 win over the Giants. It obviously was too late to help save the Eagles' season, but it wasn't too late to help ruin the Giants', who could have clinched a playoff berth with a win.

Johnson kept himself in shape during his 2 1/2-month hiatus. But there is gym shape and then there is football shape.

He said earlier in the week that he was just going to play as hard as he could for as long as he could, which, not surprisingly, turned out to be all 60 minutes in the win.

"It felt weird being out there, to be honest," Johnson said. "I'm glad we got the win, but it was a weird experience."

He wasted little time putting his imprint on the game, helping spring running back Ryan Mathews for a 17-yard gain on the Eagles' first offensive play with a nice block on Giants linebacker Keenan Robinson. It ignited a seven-play, 78-yard scoring drive capped by a 25-yard touchdown run by Darren Sproles.

Johnson and tight end Zach Ertz had the key blocks on Sproles' run around the right side. Johnson took out Giants Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins and Ertz blocked cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Giants have one of the league's top run defenses. They came into the game ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed per game (90.1) and third in yards allowed per carry (3.6). The Eagles rushed for 118 yards on 30 carries.

In the Eagles' 28-23, Week 9 loss to the Giants at MetLife Stadium without Johnson, the Eagles rushed for 96 yards on 25 carries and felt lucky to get that.

The Eagles ran the ball on six of the seven plays on that first touchdown drive. Sixty-two of the 78 yards on the drive came on the ground.

"We started the game off with a boom," Johnson said. "I wish we could've finished the game like that. But (that first drive) gave us some momentum."

Johnson's run-blocking showed very little rust and neither did his pass-blocking.

"It just felt good to be back out there on the field," he said.

In Sunday's loss to the Ravens, with Seumalo making his first start at right tackle, Wentz continually got the ball out quickly. Twenty-four of his 42 pass attempts traveled 5 yards or less. Eleven of those 24 were thrown behind the line of scrimmage.

With Johnson back Thursday, it afforded Wentz more time to throw, and gave the rookie the confidence to stand in there and know he was going to get that time. Wentz's passing numbers - 13-for-24 for 152 yards - were pedestrian. But he had a big 40-yard touchdown pass to much-maligned wide receiver Nelson Agholor late in the second quarter that gave the Eagles a 21-6 lead at the time.

Johnson did a nice job keeping linebacker Devon Kennard away from Wentz on the pass to Agholor. Agholor had to come all the way across the field on a route that took a little bit of time. It's a route the Eagles wouldn't have even tried to run a few days earlier against the Ravens without Johnson.

Besides having Johnson back, Eagles coach Doug Pederson also used a lot of three-tight-end sets often featuring Seumalo as the third tight end.

Late in the second quarter, Johnson had another nice block on a 17-yard screen pass to Sproles. In the fourth quarter, Johnson had a key block on defensive end Kerry Wynn on a 13-yard run by Sproles.

Mathews left the game early in the second half with a stinger. Sproles finished with 40 yards on seven carries, almost all of it on the two runs to Johnson's side.

"I think (Pederson) wanted to see me and (right guard Brandon) Brooks work together out of the gate and see where we were at, then work from there," Johnson said.

"It was great having him back," Brooks said. "Lane's a special player. He does a lot of things well."

It's not really a stretch to suggest that the Eagles would have been able to make a playoff run if Johnson had been at right tackle the entire season.

For all of their talent flaws, the fact of the matter is that six of their nine losses were by seven points or less, including five of the eight defeats Johnson wasn't there for.

Johnson understands what he cost this football team by getting suspended. He hopes to make it up to his teammates and the organization one day.

"I've just got to be more responsible," he said. "I can't be as careless as I've been. I've got to mature and grow up.

"We've got Dallas next week. It doesn't mean a lot to them, but it'll mean a lot to us."

@Pdomo Blog: