Achieving success in the NFL is hard. Sustaining it is even harder. There’s a reason that there are only sixteen regular season games each year. The mental and physical tolls taken by the body are nothing to be envied and for many teams, the damage goes far beyond losing a star player early. The Eagles have had their fair share of injuries this year, making their 5-1 record even more impressive. We hear a lot about the “next man up” mentality, but if that man isn’t ready, the mindset would never work…and that’s why the Eagles spent so much time during the offseason on developing younger talent.
“One, I think that we don’t make a big deal over the actual injury. It’s part of the game, part of football.” Doug Pederson told reporters on Thursday. “I think, two, one of the things that we’ve done I think a good job at, we kind of implemented it back in OTAs, we began a developmental program with some of our younger players, and getting them more reps, whether it was splitting the two fields or spending time after practice. Coaches do a great job spending time with their younger players. And that next guy, that next man, I think that’s been a big part of why there hasn’t been a significant drop-off in the play.”
It took just one game for the Eagles to lose their first starter in Ronald Darby, and five more until he returned to practice. In his place, rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas stepped up to the plate. The WVU standout has two picks to his name during that period along with 14 tackles and 6 passes defensed. A strong start for a corner who wasn’t quite strong enough to carve a starting role during training camp. What he did do in that period however was work very closely with Cory Undlin and the rest of the defensive backs. Forming an on-the-field rivalry with Alshon Jeffery certainly helps too.
“The biggest thing is that Rasul has played, and he’s played in some big games, and made some big plays for us, a couple interceptions.” Pederson said. “He’s just getting better. It gives us great depth now at that corner position.”
The Offense has been no exception. Losing Darren Sproles so early in the season was regarded as a huge hit to take, while Wendell Smallwood’s knee injury practically forced UDFA Corey Clement into the fray. With 71 yards and a touchdown on the season, Clement has been a reliable back in clutch situations when it comes to running down the clock and has been a pleasant surprise as a change of pace back so far.
Arguably the biggest development curve in terms of depth this season as been along the offensive front. The Eagles were without Lane Johnson last week due to a concussion and it was second year tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai who filled in. A tumultuous rookie campaign was easily forgotten…in fact, the loss of Lane Johnson was almost invisible during the second half of the Redskins game.
In the first half, the Eagles averaged 6.3 yards per play while the running backs averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Wentz was sacked once. After Johnson was walked out of the game, the Eagles yards per play went up to 6.8, the running back production stayed the same and Wentz stayed on his feet. In comparison to last season, this was a huge improvement. Vaitai even saw time against the Redskins in game one when Peters left during the second half, and once again he settled into the action nicely.
Against the Panthers, life was a little more hectic for Vaitai, who was hounded by Julius Peppers early on, but he held his nerve and ended up with arguably his most impressive game as an Eagle so far.
“Yeah, it’s unfortunate. He took just a bad set line on the sack.” Pederson explained after the loss. “He learned from it, obviously, the hard way. But, hey, listen, Peppers is a great player. But he settled in. He did some nice things after that. Trust his technique. Trust his fundamentals, and he did a nice job. It’s great to see, again, a young player step in on a short week and play against a fine defensive end like he did. It just gives us a lot of confidence moving forward with him.”
What provoked the improved play? A close relationship with Jeff Stoutland and an intense offseason that focused on nailing the technical aspect of his game.
It doesn’t matter where you look. Maybe it’s the wide receivers with Mike Groh leading the way for a Nelson Agholor resurgence, or the defensive line who when missing Fletcher Cox and Destiny Vaeao, were able to lean on rookie Elijah Qualls, the ever-consistent Beau Allen, and rookie Justin Hamilton, this team has put a huge emphasis on developing the future.
Surviving the injury bug bites starts with development. Surrounding players with the right teammates, the right leaders, the right coaches. It’s something that the Eagles have done incredibly well and had they not, this would be a very different season indeed.
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports