Eagles

Eagles notice big change in Lane Johnson

usa-lane-johnson.jpg
USA Today Images

Eagles notice big change in Lane Johnson

Fresh off a pretty dominating performance against Von Miller, it's pretty safe to say Lane Johnson is playing at an extremely high level, a Pro Bowl level even. 

The Eagles' right tackle has seemingly used his 10-game PED suspension from last year as motivation. He's on a mission to prove himself in the NFL and it's working. 

That's why when offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was asked if this is the best football of Johnson's career, the veteran O-line coach gave a look of bewilderment. 

"Seriously?" Stoutland said, opening his eyes as wide as they go while dipping his head slightly forward. "He's off the chart right now.

"I think he just made his mind up that he wants to be a dominating player and whatever it takes from his standpoint, meetings, meeting room. From the time he walks in until the time he leaves here, it's all business for Lane. Lane's a worker, man."

After Jason Peters went down for the season, it might have made sense to flip Johnson from the right to left side and place Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle. But the Eagles decided to leave Johnson at his post for a few reasons. One of them is that Johnson is playing extremely well at right tackle. Another is that they didn't want to disrupt two spots. 

And another is that many premier pass-rushers line up on the right tackle. Demarcus Lawrence and Khalil Mack are still yet to come. As far as Miller, Stoutland said Johnson was "excellent" against the NFL's leader in sacks since 2011. He saw that one-handed toss Johnson pulled on Miller and recognized it as a technique they teach; Johnson executed it "perfectly." 

"He's always had that in him but I think it's at a different level right now," Stoutland said. "He's always had that in him."

Right guard
During his session with reporters Tuesday, Stoutland was answering a question when he got a little annoyed. He pointed out that no one had asked him about Brandon Brooks yet. Because while Johnson is playing at a Pro Bowl level, the guy lining up to his left is, too. 

Stoutland praised Brooks' consistency and his physicality. At 330 pounds, Brooks is the heaviest player on the roster. 

But he's pretty athletic for his size. 

"Extremely athletic. Sneaky athletic," Stoutland said. "You watch him when we screw around a little bit with the football. We'll throw the football around. He's just a very athletic guy for a big man."

A few times Sunday against Denver, it was Brooks who was downfield blocking in the second level. 

What's that like to see?  

"Pretty awesome," Stoutland said. "And then he can stand at the line of scrimmage in a phone booth and knock your face off, too." 

Left tackle 
The flip side of Johnson's staying at right tackle was that Vaitai simply replaced Peters at left tackle. That's no easy task. 

Big V has a pretty unassuming personality. He's so soft-spoken it's actually hard to imagine him having enough fire to be able to take on defensive linemen Sundays. But Stoutland knows how to get that out of him. 

"I know the secret. I know the button," he said. "Trust me. Ask him that. I push him."

When asked where Vaitai has improved the most, Stoutland answered by saying "the use of his hands." He said Vaitai has been able to use his hands violently without losing his balance. 

"He makes progress on a daily basis," Stoutland said. "Very happy with his progression. I like him as a left tackle. He's been a natural left tackle."

Center
For all the criticism Jason Kelce has gotten from fans over the last few years, the veteran center is playing at a really high level in 2017. 

Stoutland was willing to take some of the blame for Kelce's dip in play last season. 

"To be fair to Kelce, I asked him last year to do a whole bunch," Stoutland said. "I think I asked him to do a little bit too much and I think that kind of diluted a little bit of his ability and his production level, to be honest with you. That's on me. This year, we kind of tightened it up a little bit and put him in better positions to be productive and successful. But I have always had a tremendous regard for Jason Kelce and his ability to play center in this league."

Stoutland also praised Kelce's discipline. He said Kelce has always been a technician but is even more consistent with that this season. 

Left guard
Stefen Wisniewski was the third guy to get a crack at the left guard spot this season, but it doesn't look like he's going to give it up anytime soon. When Isaac Seumalo was struggling, the Eagles used a combination of Chance Warmack and Wiz until it was clear Wisniewski was just playing better. 

That's why he earned the job. 

"Just proved it every day. Production. Bottom line," Stoutland said. "The production level of the player. Everybody had their opportunity. And I told them all that. I told them nobody here is my cousin or anything. It's the production of the player and at the end of the day, that's the guy that was most productive."

Stoutland said he kept the rotation at left guard going until he was "100 percent sure" Wisniewski was the guy. That meant benching his longtime pupil dating back to Alabama. 

"Chance did nothing wrong," Stoutland said. "Chance was actually playing very good. At the end of the day, I just didn't feel like we could keep going on the way we were going."

By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

ap-doug-pederson-smile-falcons-eagles.jpg
AP Images

By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

Bill Belichick didn’t win a playoff game until his fourth year as an NFL head coach and didn’t reach a conference title game until his seventh year.

Don Shula didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth year as a head coach.

It took Dick Vermeil four years to win a playoff game, Dan Reeves six years, Tom Landry eight.

Heck, Pete Carroll didn’t reach a conference title game until his third head coaching stop, and Marv Levy didn’t even get to the playoffs until his eighth year as a head coach.

Just a little context.

Pederson has been magnificent this year, and out of everybody we talk about who’s played a role in the Eagles' success — from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles, Howie Roseman to Joe Douglas, Fletcher Cox to Malcolm Jenkins, Jim Schwartz to John DiFillippo, Jason Kelce to Alshon Jeffery — Pederson is the common thread that’s tied all of it together.

We saw last year that Pederson had a rare ability to keep a team together when faced with adversity. Whether it was the whole Sam Bradford situation before the season, Lane Johnson’s suspension, a couple arrests, two players publicly speaking out about mental health, or just keeping the thing on the rails after three straight late-season ugly losses, Pederson won over his players by confronting each issue openly and professionally and treating his players like grown men.

By the time the team training camp ended this past summer, Pederson had earned the respect of the veterans by preaching discipline without being over the top about it and by constantly keeping the lines of communication open with his players. 

Here’s a young, inexperienced coach who had a long but undistinguished playing career and no real track record or resume as a head coach trying to convince a locker room of Super Bowl winners and all-pros that he knows what he’s doing.

But he did that. Just by being himself. Tough, smart, open, honest.

And once you get guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Peters, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery to buy in, the younger guys just fall in line. 

And that might be the biggest challenge any head coach faces. Getting guys to believe in his message. To believe in him.

But Pederson has tremendous instincts when dealing with people, a real natural, honest way of getting his point across, and it enabled him to seamlessly win over the locker room. 

Once that happened, this team was built to withstand whatever challenge it faced. To withstand whatever roadblocks stood in its way.

And as it turned out, there were plenty of them. 

We don't have to run down the littany of season-ending injuries the Eagles faced, but what this team has accomplished without its MVP quarterback, its Hall of Fame left tackle, its best linebacker, its all-pro returner and its top special teamer is nothing less than astonishing.

Nick Foles is their quarterback and they're in the NFC Championship Game.

Think about the last month.

They came from behind in Los Angeles to beat the Rams after Wentz got hurt. They beat the Giants on the road. They beat the Raiders to clinch No. 1 seed. They "upset" the Falcons in a conference semifinal playoff game. 

For this football team to be one home win away from the Super Bowl after all it has been through speaks volumes about Pederson. He's guided this franchise through adversity that would have crushed some locker rooms, and he's done it in his second year as a head coach above the high school level.

Pederson found a way to get 53 guys to believe in themselves even when very few other people did. And they returned the favor by consistently playing smart, physical, disciplined football for him no matter who the opponent, no matter what the score, no matter how long that Injured Reserve list grew.

This has been a masterful year for Pederson, and anybody who can't see that just isn't looking very hard.

Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

usa-jay-ajayi-falcons-eagles.jpg
USA Today Images

Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

Jay Ajayi wasn't hurt Saturday night. So why did he barely play after a huge first quarter?

Ajayi dominated the first quarter of the Eagles' 15-10 playoff win over the Falcons at the Linc with seven carries for 49 yards. But after a one-yard carry a minute into the second quarter, he didn't touch the ball again until the third quarter.

After his hot start, he didn't even get on the field on the Eagles' last two drives of the first half.

LeGarrette Blount actually had more carries than Ajayi after the first quarter, but netted only 19 yards on nine attempts, although he did score the Eagles' only touchdown from a yard out in the second quarter.

Ajayi never got into a rhythm after his long layoff. He had eight carries for five yards after the first quarter and finished with 15 carries for 54 yards along with four catches for 44 yards, including a 32-yard catch and run that was the Eagles' longest offensive play of the game.

Head coach Doug Pederson said Monday he just wanted to get Blount some work. He also said he likes to go hurry-up after long plays and was unable to sub Ajayi while the offense was going with tempo. But there weren't any plays longer than 15 yards while Ajayi sat.

Pederson said the decision on which back to use rests with him and not running backs coach Duce Staley.

“I ultimately control the personnel," he said. "Duce doesn’t sub them. I’m the one calling the plays, so I call for those guys in particular situations, and a couple times when we broke off a long run or a pass particularly — it’s a good time to go a little tempo. So whoever the back is at the time on the field, I just kept him in there.

"And [Blount] was heating up a little bit and we wanted to get him going as well and it’s just the way it went."

Ajayi had 35 of the 86 net yards on the Eagles' only touchdown drive of the game.

After that second-quarter TD drive, the Eagles ran 15 times for 17 yards, not including three Nick Foles kneel-downs.  

Pederson said all the backs know all the plays, but he just prefers different backs depending on what the Eagles are doing offensively. 

Of the Eagles’ 67 offensive plays, Ajayi played 29, Blount 20, Corey Clement 16 and Kenjon Barner one (see Snap Counts).

"The way it is set up is by design, by scheme design, a particular back might be good at a certain run scheme so we put that back in for that particular play," he said.