The Eagles may have lost four of their last five games in heartbreaking fashion, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positives to take. Many will look to the dominant play of Brandon Graham, the leadership of Carson Wentz or the hard-hitting play of Rodney McLeod for those positives, but will overlook one of the most important improvements from the last few weeks, simply because it isn’t glamorous.
It isn’t often that Offensive Linemen are praised for a great game. Much like cornerbacks, the more they’re out of the spotlight, the better the game, traditionally. If Linemen are being spoken about for days on end after a tough loss, it’s usually due to penalties, a poor game or some strange errors. But one of the real bright spots of the Eagles in recent weeks has been the play of fifth round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Vaitai had a baptism of fire in the NFL following the suspension of Lane Johnson. Lining up against esteemed Wahington pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, Vaitai struggled massively, allowing Ryan Kerrigan to run rampant against Carson Wentz. Seen as a major factor in the loss to the Redskins, many questioned Pederson’s decision to leave Vaitai in the game after such a problematic first half..but as time went on, he began to find his feet. And now, four games later..it’s perhaps one of his best coaching decisions yet.
There’s an abundance of depth on the Offensive Line, a luxury the team have lacked in previous years. From Stefen Wisniewski to Isaac Seumalo, there were plenty of “plug n play” options for Pederson to choose from when it came to replacing his franchise right tackle for a minimum of ten games..and he was absolutely right to ride with Vaitai.
Last season saw both Lane Johnson and Jason Peters rank inside the fifteen most penalized players in the league..a trend in Eagles Offensive linemen that looked to continue in the early stages of 2016. Johnson picked up two penalties in 2016, despite appearing far more disciplined in terms of not picking up false stats..but the rest of the unit has struggled mightily.
Jason Kelce has 4 of the Offensive Line’s 12 holding penalties. Vaitai has just one penalty since his debut, despite the day of reckoning against the Redskins. The entire unit appears to have found a new level of discipline since the debut of “Big V” too.
In the four games prior to Johnson’s suspension, the Eagles gave up 21 Offensive penalties, including a season high 7 against the Lions. Since his rookie debut however, the Eagles Offense has given up just 13 penalties on Offense and an impressive zero against the Giants. Big V also has just one penalty on the year.
That’s not the only area where the unit has at the very least retained consistency however. In the four game’s before Johnson was reprimanded by the NFL, the Eagles surrendered:
Vs Browns: 2 sacks 9 QB hits
@ Bears: 2 sacks 3 QB hits
Vs Steelers: 0 sacks 7 QB hits
@ Lions: 3 sacks 3 QB hits
Since Vaitai endured his crushing first taste of the NFL?
@ Redskins: 5 sacks 12 QB hits
Vs Vikings 0 sacks 2 QB hits
@ Cowboys: 3 sacks 7 QB hits
@ Giants: 2 sacks 7 QB hits
Aside from the loss to Washington, it’s not as if the Eagles O-Line has dipped dramatically in performance. There’s certainly a drop, but Jason Kelce is also dealing with Plantar Fasciitis and Allen Barbre fell injured. Not only that but they faced three intimidating pass rushes since Vaitai debuted, in place of the Browns, Bears and Lions that Johnson lined up against.
This isn’t to say that Vaitai has performed better than Lane Johnson, but as we’re aware, penalties have been an issue plaguing the Line over the last few seasons..and the numbers have fallen drastically since Vaitai first made his debut, with his level of discipline dissipating along the line.
Allen Barbre is now out with an injury and expected to return soon. Until then, it’s Wisniewski who will be flying the flag at Left Guard..which on paper, makes the Eagles Offensive Line seem like prey for a decent pass rush.
An aging Jason Peters who is dealing with a degenerative injury anchors down the Left Tackle spot, while Wisniewski plays next to him, having originally lost out on the starting role in a Training Camp positional battle. Jason Kelce would be the starting Center in spite of Plantar Fasciitis which continues to hamper his play, and new franchise right guard Brandon Brooks will stand next to him..before fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai rounds out the line.
It isn’t the most intimidating unit by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re getting the job done..and a large reason behind the surge in production is the improved play of the TCU product who continues to develop each and every week.
Vaitai has gone from being one of the worst graded linemen on Pro Football Focus to a much higher placing. With a tough schedule of pass-rushers up ahead, there will no doubt be mistakes and signs of rookie play from Vaitai, but his maturity, technical improvement and level of discipline have given this Offensive Line a lifeline it didn’t previously have..one that protects Carson Wentz, opens the run game and facilitates the loss of Lane Johnson.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports