Eagles

Halapoulivaati Vaitai thriving for Eagles in place of injured Jason Peters

ap-halapoulivaati-vaitai.jpg
AP Images

Halapoulivaati Vaitai thriving for Eagles in place of injured Jason Peters

Everybody thinks Halapoulivaati Vaitai is playing lights out right now.

Everybody except Big V himself. 

Vaitai is 3½ games into his stint as Jason Peters' replacement at left tackle, and the results are impressive.

The Eagles haven't lost since Vaitai took over for Peters just after halftime of the second Redskins game, back in late October, and the offense hasn't slowed down at all.

How would he grade himself?

"Not very high," Vaitai said Tuesday. "Reason why? Because I don’t feel like I’m doing the best I can at left tackle. I’m working very very hard to achieve that goal. 

"I tend to second guess, I tend to rush through things. I need to be more patient. … You know me. I like to criticize myself."

But the reality is that there's been no discernible dropoff with the second-year fifth-round pick at left tackle.

Pro-rating the two halves of the Redskins game, which Peters and Vaitai split, here are the Eagles' averages with each of them on the field:

With Peters: 28 points per game, 382 yards per game, 4.3 yards per carry, 131 rushing yards per game, 2.9 sacks per game.

With Vaitai: 35 points per game, 367 yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry, 170 rushing yards per game, 1.4 sacks per game.

Obviously, there are a million factors that go into those figures, but the bottom line is the offense has been motoring along just fine with Vaitai protecting Carson Wentz's blind side.

"Like they say, 'the next man up,'" Vaitai said. "It’s sad to see what happened to J.P. Just one of those deals where you have to be ready filling in that role. 

"The good thing is J.P. is still by my side. He texts me every now and then. He texts me before the game, he calls me after, tells me what I need to work on. J.P. always says, 'just calm down, get to your spot and you’ll be OK.' It’s just really, really good and makes me feel like he’s right there next to me." 

Vaitai started six games in place of Lane Johnson at right tackle last year, and the plan was always for Johnson to move over to left tackle when Peters retired or in the event he got hurt.

But the combination of Johnson's off-the-charts play at right tackle combined with Vaitai's encouraging progress convinced the Eagles to just make the one-for-one switch.

"He's done a great job," Jason Kelce said. "It’s extremely hard to play with a backup tackle in this league. Most teams aren’t fortunate to have two tackles who can block 1-on-1 on the edge. The fact that he can go in there and hold down that position for us … I don’t want to say he’s Jason Peters, but he’s definitely done his job."

The Eagles' 37-9 win over Dallas Sunday night was Vaitai's best game yet.

He had a crushing block that helped spring Jay Ajayi on his 71-yard game-breaking run in the second quarter, and he neutralized Cowboys defensive end Tyrone Crawford, who didn't record a single tackle. In all, the Cowboys had no sacks in the Eagles' 37-9 win.

And it's not like the Eagles are giving him a ton of help anymore.

"The first week or two that he's in, you're probably thinking, 'on any play that's a longer-developing play, we better give him chip help,'" offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "The more and more confidence you gain in a player, you know what? 'We can give him help but I'd really rather keep the back over on the right side for this play.' We've given him less help in that regard."

This is a veteran offensive line, with Stefen Wisniewski, Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Johnson all in at least their fifth season.

It's a great situation for a 24-year-old second-year pro.

“They have confidence in me, so it’s really good to have those guys," Big V said. "Wiz helps me out a lot, a lot of the calls when I can’t hear Kelce, he tells me. It’s really, really fun playing with those guys. Lane on the other side, he comes over to my side, 'how you doing man?'"

He's doing great.

“He’s really progressing," Johnson said. "He may have a few bad plays here and there, but he's really settling in. The more he plays the better he’s going to do. He’s shown up."

What's he getting better at?

"Pass pro, he’s not leaning as much," Johnson said. "Once he gets his hand on somebody, usually he’s pretty strong. (And) probably just recognizing when different blitzes are coming, fronts. Probably just his football IQ coming up a little bit. 

"You don’t try to do what (Peters) does, you try to do what you can do, and I think in the big picture that’s what he’s done. Quietly, man, he’s been playing really well.”

It's not easy to replace a Hall of Famer. Vaitai knows he can't be Jason Peters. But he doesn't have to be. It turns out just being himself isn't too bad.

"You can't be a Jason Peters or whoever it might be," Doug Pederson said. "It's like when I was in Green Bay playing, you can't be Brett Favre. You've got to be you and be the best that you can be, and that's the case with Vaitai. 

"Just let your talents show, trust your ability, trust your instinct, and good things are going to happen. And that's what you're seeing out of him."

Eagles' offense 'full steam ahead' with Nick Foles at QB

Eagles' offense 'full steam ahead' with Nick Foles at QB

Carson Wentz is out, Nick Foles is in. 

And the Eagles claim their offense isn't going to change. 

On it's face, that seems somewhat absurd. After all, Wentz is more than an average quarterback. He's the face of the Eagles' franchise and was an MVP candidate through 13 weeks. Foles was once a Pro Bowler, but there's a reason he wasn't a starter entering this season. 

So how will the offense look different? 

"I don't expect it will look different at all," Foles said adamantly.  

Why is that? 

"Because it's our offense," Foles answered. "This is the Eagles' offense. This is the one that is the DNA of this team. And we're going to do what we do. We have so many tremendous players on offense that can do a lot of different things. We just have to go out there and execute and have a great week of work and just keep moving." 

Offensive coordinator Frank Reich finally admitted that there will be "very minor tweaks" to the Eagles' weekly game plans with Foles in at quarterback. But he made the same point as Foles, that the system is built around the QB, but also around the other talent on offense. 

There is, however, one pretty significant difference between Wentz and Foles. 

"Now, Carson has some unique physical traits that he does exceptionally well, but it's nothing that Nick can't handle," Reich said. "We're full steam ahead."

The Eagles run plenty of run-pass option plays, but head coach Doug Pederson pointed out on Monday that the Eagles very rarely use their quarterback to run the ball in those situations. And as far as RPOs go, Foles has used them plenty before. 

Another part of the offense that has been tailored to Wentz is the autonomy the quarterback has at the line of scrimmage. Wentz has been able to make calls and checks pre-snap based on what the defense shows. It seems like Foles will have that same ability, which is something he's excited about. 

"Understand this, he's a veteran player who has played and won a lot of games, not only here, but other places that he's been," Pederson said. "Nick's a highly intelligent football player."

Pederson said he and Foles will talk weekly to make sure his quarterback is comfortable with the plays that go into the game plan. So, theoretically, things could be different. But based on what the offensive leaders of the team have said, don't expect wholesale changes. 

Now, what might change about the offense isn't necessarily by design. Because of Wentz's unique physical gifts and escapability, he's able to make incredible plays. The escape in Washington, the throw to Corey Clement in the end zone, the deep flick down the sideline in Seattle, those are plays only a handful of guys in the world can make. It would be unfair to expect Foles to make them. 

But as far as game-planning goes, the Eagles are going to do what they've done. 

"I feel comfortable in this offense," Foles said. "I love this offense. We're going to run this offense. Nothing's going to change."

Foles dealt with elbow soreness during the summer, but says his elbow now feels "amazing" and is not an issue. That's good news for the Eagles, because at least Foles has plenty of starting experience. His backup, Nate Sudfeld, has never even been active for an NFL game. 

The Eagles' hopes in 2017 rest on the shoulders of Foles. 

"I've always been a gunslinger, just let it rip," Foles said. "That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to play loose, count on the guys, lead this team. There's no other place I'd rather be. That's why I came back here. ... I'm ready to step up and help this team win."

Doug Pederson needs to give his new QB some help

usa-doug-pederson-eagles-cowboys.jpg
USA Today Images

Doug Pederson needs to give his new QB some help

I know you're feeling conflicted right now. The Eagles are 11-2, tied for the best record in the NFL. They've already clinched the NFC East. Home-field advantage and a playoff bye are a very real possibility. But the Carson Wentz injury is an equalizer and then some.

On the bright side, the Flyers steadied their sinking ship in Western Canada by winning three straight. But the Sixers have dropped four in a row. Maybe the Phils will land Jake Arrieta or Manny Machado? Dare to dream. You're up, you're down. Welcome to Philadelphia sports. So what better time to provide some nice, healthy Rob's Rants? Letting things out can be therapeutic and after the Wentz news, I need to vent a little.    

Run-pass-option
It's hard to find fault with Doug Pederson this season. He's done an excellent job game planning and having his team prepared week in and week out, and his most impressive work has been his ability to overcome injuries. The Eagles have lost Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles, Chris Maragos, just to name a few. All of the above represent major core pieces and Pederson's team is 11-2. Losing Wentz trumps them all and presents the head coach's biggest challenge. So look at this not so much as a rant but a plea to Doug P. moving forward.     

Nick Foles entered the Rams game late in the third quarter with the Eagles trailing 35-31. Certainly a difficult spot for any backup. He hadn't taken a meaningful snap all season. Logic would dictate emphasizing the run to let him get his feet wet. This was not the late fourth quarter, no timeouts, need to move down the field quickly type of circumstances. Further, the Eagles have three very capable running backs.

Pederson elected to throw the ball five straight times and called pass plays on eight of nine in the possession. The Birds did wind up getting a field goal on the drive and Foles completed three passes, but you wonder if it's the wisest move to drop Foles back that much, that quickly. I know Doug has been aggressive all season and that in part has helped the Eagles get where they are, and I'm also well aware of the heat he took by many (including me) for being too passive in the Seattle loss. But with Foles' lack of mobility in the pocket and the left side of the Eagles' offensive line struggling mightily against the pass rush, a bigger dose of the run could have made his transition back to starter a little smoother. But beyond the Rams game, balance and a commitment to the run will be Foles' best friend, along with a strong defense.    

Sixers struggles
It's one thing to lose in Cleveland and New Orleans, especially without Joel Embiid for both games and Robert Covington vs. the Pelicans. It's another to drop home games to the likes of the Suns and the Lakers prior to those defeats. For that, there is no excuse. The Sixers have lost four in a row and stand at 13-13. They continue to turn the ball over at an alarming rate and of late have not come to play to start games, particularly at home. Some of this can be chalked up to youth. Some not so much.

They are losing far too many 50-50 balls. Too many offensive rebounds and second chances allowed. That's just hustle and want. They also need veterans like Jerryd Bayless to be better, especially in the absence of T.J. McConnell. I've pointed this out before in this space but the Sixers are beyond losing to the NBA's dregs. It would also be nice to get the No. 1 overall pick from this past draft on the floor at some point.    

Army-Navy
Let's close out this Rob's Rants on two positives. First, the 118th edition of Army-Navy football was played Saturday right here in Philadelphia. It is everything that is right about sports and our country. The men doing battle on that field at the Linc put sports into the context it deserves. Battle hard on the field, win or lose, respect to your opponent, represent our service men and women and country. Then it's on to further protecting and serving. They are truly unique individuals. And to have it played in the snow in such a cool setting was awesome.

DJ and the Kernal
Lastly, Dick Jerardi and Mike Kern both recently announced their retirements from the Philadelphia Daily News. They were as good of writers as this city has ever seen. They were even better people. I grew up reading them and had the opportunity as an adult to work with them professionally as a producer, then as a host and the pleasure was all mine. They knew of what they wrote, you learned something every time you read them, and they provided a sense of humor while doing it. Nothing beat our yearly Daily News Live Christmas Eve shows with Hall of Famer John Chaney. Their bylines will be missed.