Eagles

Both major doubts about Doug Pederson have been erased

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USA Today Images

Both major doubts about Doug Pederson have been erased

MVP candidate quarterback. Future Hall of Fame left tackle. Starting middle linebacker. The ultimate, all-purpose swiss-army knife. The captain of your special teams. The starting kicker. That's the short but long list of impactful Eagles players that have been lost to injury this season. 

Yet, here we stand on the brink of their meaningless season finale. The Eagles won the regular season — there is nothing else they could have accomplished short of going undefeated. Division title, bye week, home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

You don't overcome the depth and scope of those types of losses to achieve what they have without serious leadership from the top. Credit to Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas and the Eagles' front office for having enough depth to survive the subtractions. And props to the players — this is a determined group who play for one another. But the lion's share of the praise goes to the head coach. Doug Pederson has done a masterful job all season scheming and game-planning. The Birds are second in the NFL in scoring and rushing and fourth in total yards per game. That doesn't happen by accident. They've scored 30 points or more nine times.

But beyond the X's and O's is where you see the true brilliance of the job Pederson has done this year. Coaching is more about adapting and overcoming during the course of a long season than it is dialing up the right plays. Watch enough NFL games each week and you see plenty of teams that do not show up. You could make an argument the Eagles have had two ugly games in the 15 they've played. Maybe three if you count Seattle (I don't). Both of those games — Giants and Raiders — they still managed to win. And there is a big difference between an ugly game and not coming to play altogether. The Eagles have not had one of the latter all season. That's all Doug.

From the comeback in a hostile environment in L.A after losing Carson Wentz, to Kamu Grugier-Hill kicking off, to losing your blindside tackle, there was never a "woe is us," feel-sorry-for-yourself mentality. The next-man-up mantra is clichéd in sports but it's apt for this team. So if you're rightfully concerned about Nick Foles and the Eagles' corners in their pursuit of that elusive Super Bowl title, look no further than the club's ability to conquer the high mountains that have been placed in from of them all year, to buoy your spirits.     

Heading into this season, the jury was out on Pederson both from a strategical standpoint and as a motivator. He's delivered a knockout blow to both of those doubts. Does this ensure a parade or even a playoff win? No. The Eagles enter the postseason tournament with a lot of questions, and you wonder if Wentz injury wasn't the one that broke the bow. But one thing that is assured: The head coach will have them ready to play regardless of the circumstances.

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

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AP Images

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

Halapoulivaati Vaitai is already a huge reason why the Eagles are playing for the NFC Championship. Now, he might be the key to reaching the Super Bowl.

The Eagles couldn’t have made it this far without Vaitai, who took over at left tackle way back in Week 7 when Jason Peters was lost for the season. But on Sunday, Peters’ replacement faces one of his stiffest tests to date in Vikings right defensive end Everson Griffen.

“He's a game-wrecker,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Griffen this week.

Recently named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, Griffen set career highs with 13.0 sacks in 2017, finishing tied for fourth in the NFL. It was the third time in four seasons the eighth-year veteran went into double digits, and he’s still going strong, getting to the quarterback once more in the Vikings’ divisional round playoff win over the Saints.

Griffen is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league. Vaitai was a minimally experienced backup until mid-October. On paper, the matchup looks like a serious concern.

“Fast, strong guy,” Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks said of Griffen. “He’s played in this league for years now, got experience.

“But V is big and strong too. He has not as much experience, but got more experience than a lot of younger guys his age with the games he started last year and games he’s playing this year, so I know V is up to the challenge.”

A fifth-round draft pick in 2016, Vaitai has 17 NFL starts under his belt and 11 this season, including playoffs. The results are somewhat mixed, though the Eagles have an 8-2 record since the 24-year-old stepped in at left tackle.

Vaitai hasn’t made anybody forget about Peters — a future Hall of Famer — but the second-year player is holding his own and improving steadily.

“He’s got a lot better, especially from last year to this year,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “His technique has improved greatly. I think his football IQ has gone up. He’s really worked hard to get better every day, and his pass blocking has improved tremendously.”

This week perhaps more than any other, the Eagles can’t afford a liability at the tackle position.

The gravity of the situation is obvious, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Plus, in addition to Griffen, the Vikings boast the league’s No. 1 defense both in scoring and yardage. Points and positive drives will be hard enough to come by for the Eagles without consistent disruption at the line of scrimmage (see story).

Naturally, Pederson plans to provide assistance for Vaitai. However, the Vikings are also known for using exotic double A-gap blitzes up the middle and other overload pressure packages, and the Eagles can’t double-team one guy the entire game.

There will be occasions when Griffen is one-on-one, and it’s on Vaitai to shut him down.

“It's a lot of respect for him,” Pederson said of Griffen. “He can change the ballgame.

“He knows that tight ends are going to help over there, backs are going to help over there, slide protection. It’s not rocket science. But Big V has had a challenge all season. We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long, and this will be his greatest challenge in this game. I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season.”

Whether out of comfort or necessity or resignation, at this point, the Eagles seem fine with the idea of Vaitai versus Griffen. Right tackle Lane Johnson doesn’t see the potential mismatch as a big deal at all.

“We’ll have some chip pros and some slams tied in, but other than that though, I think he’ll be alright,” Johnson said. “Just another guy in there.”

Vaitai has often looked like “just another guy” this season, in varying senses of the phrase. He’s experienced his share of struggles, then been able to quietly blend in with a strong offensive line for long periods.

Whichever Vaitai the Eagles get on Sunday could go a long way toward determining the outcome on Sunday.

Corey Clement adding element Eagles didn't expect

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Corey Clement adding element Eagles didn't expect

Corey Clement corrected himself.

His initial answer, when asked how far he's come as a receiver this year, was, "I think I've really come a long way."

Then he stopped, smiled and reconsidered.

“I think in a funny way I don’t think I made that big a leap," he said. "Because I always knew I could catch."

Clement never caught the ball at Glassboro High. Never caught the ball at Wisconsin. Never caught the ball during the regular season.

So guess who the Eagles' leading receiver was in their playoff win over the Falcons.

Who else?

"Five catches … that's not just a career high, it's probably my highest in life," Clement said laughing. "My lifetime high."

Clement caught five passes for 31 yards in the Eagles' 15-10 win over the Falcons at the Linc. The numbers may seem modest, but considering that Clement had only 29 catches in 39 games in four years in Madison and caught just 10 passes during the regular season, it's eye-opening.

Clement became the first undrafted rookie running back in NFL history to catch five passes in a playoff game and became only the ninth running back in Eagles postseason history to catch five passes in a game.

“[He's come] really far," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "We've said it all year, that's been a surprise, a running back from Wisconsin who is running power [in college]. You’re not thinking he's going to come in here and be your third-down back. But he's worked very hard at it and really made a role for himself."

Clement is a very good ball carrier — he averaged 4.3 yards per carry during the regular season — but on a team with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, he's not going to get very many carries. He had just one for five yards last Saturday, on one of the Eagles' last plays of the game.

But none of the Eagles' other backs are much in the way of receivers. In fact, this was the first year since 1956 the Eagles didn't have a running back with at least 15 catches. And they were the only NFL team without a back catching 15 passes.

Wendell Smallwood is probably their best receiving back, but he's been inactive since the Eagles acquired Ajayi.
 
"I know in college I had one season (junior year) where I had only two catches," Clement said. "It just shows you that some of the college coaches got to give you an opportunity to catch.

"But I knew the opportunity I was walking into. It’s a running school and that’s the offense we ran, so I knew I wasn’t going to catch much.

"I’m happy with where I came from and I wouldn’t want it to be any different, but I know what I can do. I know I can catch the ball, but at the same time I know I can get a lot better at it as well.”

Clement never caught more than three passes in a game in college and had only three catches in the Eagles' first 10 games (two for touchdowns) before recording seven in the last six regular-season games.

A functioning screen game can be a terrific tool to offset an aggressive, pursuing defense like the Vikings' highly regarded unit. It's something the Eagles have been missing much of the year.

So Clement's emergence as a legitimate receiving back is timely on an offense that's lacked punch since Carson Wentz got hurt.

"First of all, he's getting better in route running," Doug Pederson said. "We've got to be smart as a staff on how we use our running backs. People can start keying in on certain guys and certain personnel groups, so we've got to make sure that we mix things up.

"He's one of those guys that I feel like we're getting more comfortable with throwing him the football whether it's a screen or down the field, and you saw a couple out of the backfield to him and one big third-down play there. He catches well and he's done a nice job."

Still, this is all new to Clement.

And he's learning as he goes.

"I’m getting a lot of help from (Nick) Foles and the other receivers on how to pinpoint a ball at a better location, so I think the ball is slowed down a lot for me in the air as far as looking it in and keeping it secure once I get it," he said.

"There’s so many fine points that I can keep working on, but I think as far as making a tremendous leap, I think I’m in a good position to keep excelling, especially going into the offseason."

Clement's five catches last Saturday are the fourth-most in Eagles history by a rookie in a playoff game, behind Keith Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (seven) and DeSean Jackson (six). 

The previous record, believe it or not, was two, shared by Heath Sherman, Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook.

“I think it helps me stay on the field, just to show them I can run after the catch as well and not basically be a rock out there catching the ball," Clement said.

"Just showing versatility and staying calm out there is big, because I know I can catch, but if you make the game bigger than what it is, you’ll start doing weird crap. So I kind of just stay to the fundamentals and just play fast."