The Eagles completely decimated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game in one of the most complete performances of the season. Offensively, the Eagles were sound. Nick Foles was able to toss 3 touchdowns en route to a 352 yard game that pushed the offense all the way back to Minnesota to compete in the Super Bowl. That kind of production all starts up front. Importantly for the Eagles, it meant containing one of the league’s best pass rushers.
Everson Griffen came into the matchup after a brilliant regular season in which he accounted for 13 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Dominant is certainly one word that can be used to describe the 8-year veteran out of USC and it was a word that many expected to be using by the end of the game. The reason why, was Griffen’s opposition: Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
The TCU product entered his second season with the Eagles after a bumpy rookie campaign. Vaitai was asked to fill in for Lane Johnson during his suspension and was punished in his NFL debut by Ryan Kerrigan, a matchup that would later come back to haunt the Eagles over and over again. As time passed and experience was gained, Vaitai began to find his consistency.
Working closely with OL coach Jeff Stoutland, his second offseason was one of development and progress. But the Eagles would be forced to turn to Vaitai yet again when future Hall of Famer Jason Peters went down with injury. The project offensive tackle was called up to the plate yet again.
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This time however, on the opposite side of the shelf, Vaitai would face some of the most tenacious pass rushers in the game including the Broncos’ Von Miller, Khalil Mack and a strong-willed Seahawks defense to which he allowed two sacks, one QB hit and seven QB hurries, per PFF. The Rams, Giants, Panthers and Niners all presented unique challenges for the second-year tackle, but none more pivotal than who he faced on Sunday.
On the biggest stage he’s played on yet, the 24-year old lined up against Everson Griffen and silenced him. One of the NFL’s best was held to just 2 quarterback hits and as many tackles.
“I thought Big V played, gosh, extremely well, extremely well.” Doug Pederson told reporters on Monday. “We did help him from time to time, but there were also times he had to be on an island and block a tremendous defensive end who has had a heck of a year. Had a lot of confidence in V. These are obviously the things we’ve seen in him: his maturity, his growth as a left tackle, and he played extremely well last night.”
At 24-years old, Vaitai still has plenty of upside after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. With Peters likely returning for next year at least, the Birds have one more year to ready Vaitai for the potential full-time role. The development in technique from year one to year two is something that has gone severely under the radar, but also something that has to be recognized.
The offensive line has been a huge key to the Eagles offensive success this season. Their ability to get out in the screen game and make big blocks at the second level and keep pressure away from the quarterback has been absolutely pivotal. Philly originally endeavored to help Vaitai as much as possible. Bringing plenty of tight end help and extra blocks to take some of the pressure off of the inevitable mismatches as teams strived to tear open a weakness. As the wins piled up and the weeks passed by, that support level was pulled less and less and before we knew it, Vaitai was holding his own.
Vaitai will now play on the biggest stage of all against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. A chance to cement his authority as the future of the left tackle position and the heir to the throne of Jason Peters. Of course, there may be a long way to go before he is named the eventual starter, but the Eagles have been afforded that luxury. The team have been patient from the moment they drafted Vaitai and as time passes by, he’s only improving and becoming more and more productive for the Eagles.
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports