Eagles' offensive line makes progress vs. Dolphins: 'Good, but sloppy'

Eagles' offensive line makes progress vs. Dolphins: 'Good, but sloppy'

The ground attack was boom or bust. Quarterback Carson Wentz was pressured and got smacked around but was able to lead a pair of scoring drives. It wasn't pretty, yet Thursday night was considered progress for the Eagles' offensive line.

"We got two scores, and we had 50 yards rushing in the first quarter, so I'm fine with that," Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said following the team's 38-31 win over the Dolphins. "It's a good day for us."

Eagles starters wound up playing just 19 offensive snaps in the third and most important preseason contest. That was enough time for LeGarrette Blount and Wendell Smallwood to combine to rush eight times for 47 yards, while Wentz completed 6 of 10 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

It was also too much time for the Eagles to cover up all of the flaws that plagued the O-line in the first two games. Blount was stopped for two yards or less on three of his four carries, and Wentz took three wicked hits and threw an interception that was directly the result of pressure in his face.

"It was a little bit better today," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "Still could've been better. It's just a little bit sloppy, it's a little bit not being on the same page."

The lack of cohesion is understandable, to a degree. Thursday marked the first time the Eagles had all five starting offensive linemen this preseason. Last week, left tackle Jason Peters was out for personal reasons, and right guard Brandon Brooks missed the opener with an injury.

"Now that we have all five offensive linemen here, everybody's out there, we can really start building that chemistry, building the camaraderie of the offensive line," Kelce said.

With only two weeks to go until the Eagles meet the Redskins in a game that will count in the standings and the starters likely finished for the preseason, there isn't much time left to create continuity.

"We have to improve," Johnson said. "This week in practice, we're getting the twos and threes ready to play, but we really need to focus on practicing well and treating it like a game, and just be ready for Washington."

At least the first-team offense was finally able to get something going in the running game. Blount in particular struggled to find room. Prior to ripping off a 16-yard run on his final carry against the Dolphins, the 30-year-old back had nowhere to go, managing all of 20 yards on 12 attempts.

Getting the ground attack going was an emphasis for the Eagles on Thursday, and the O-line paved the way for Blount and Smallwood to average 5.9 yards per rush.

"That was our goal," Johnson said. "We knew we had the ability run the ball, so all we had to do is just go do what we did in practice, and that's what we did.

"We just have to do a better job of protecting Carson."

Kelce remained critical of the unit's performance but was encouraged it will get fixed.

"Good, but sloppy," Kelce said, "I'd like for the run game, especially during this preseason, to have been more effective, and I think I speak for everybody in that respect. But it's close. You see on the plays, it's one guy here, one guy there. It's little things that we have to clean up."

Another reason for optimism is the simple fact that the Eagles haven't been preparing for specific opponents.

Ordinarily during the regular season, teams will call specific plays aimed at exposing an opponents' weaknesses. They'll study an opponent's tendencies and blitzes, then devise a plan to beat those packages.

The Eagles have been doing little to no game-planning during the preseason, and while that might seem like a crutch — one that players and coaches alike were hesitant to fall back on — it puts blockers in some difficult situations.

"There were a couple of unscouted blitzes," said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. "But it's no excuse. We've got to be ready for everything and anything and just a lot of quick pressure on Carson."

"As we start preparing for opponents throughout the work week, start getting used to the blitzes, the different looks, the different things that they have to offer, that just cleans everything up," Kelce said.

It's worth noting the Eagles have a veteran offensive line. The only new starter up front in 2017 is second-year left guard Isaac Seumalo. Everybody else has at least four NFL seasons under their belt.

Perhaps that's the best reason of all there's no reason to panic. Pretty much every guy on this line has a track record of success, so when they say it's close, you almost just have to believe it.

After all, it's only preseason.

"I feel like all a preseason game is is just a scrimmage, just to go against other guys, see where you're at, see where you're deficient at, see where you can improve," Johnson said. "That's the way it is every year.

"A lot of people get carried away with preseason. Hey, you can go 0-4 in preseason and have a great season."

5 realistic options for Eagles at No. 32

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5 realistic options for Eagles at No. 32

There’s a chance the Eagles don’t even pick tonight. They own No. 32 but could try to move back to gain more draft picks. Very possible. 

But if they don’t, here are five options at 32 from Paul Hudrick and Dave Zangaro: 

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Guice is a bell cow back that will make an impact immediately at the NFL level. If there wasn’t an athletic freak like Saquon Barkley at the top of the draft, Guice would be RB1. He’s powerful, explosive and has outstanding vision.

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
Michel shared the backfield during his time at Georgia, but was productive every time he received an opportunity. The tape that stands out is his game against Alabama. He showed elite quickness and elusiveness against the highest level of competition. Michel is a complete back, but just a notch below Guice.

Eagles RB situation
The Eagles bring back Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement this season, but after that? There’s nothing in stone. LeGarrette Blount left in free agency. Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey are on the roster, but aren’t locks. Kenjon Barner is back on the street, along with Darren Sproles, who might be a candidate to bring back in the summer. Even if the Eagles don’t draft a RB in the first, it would be somewhat surprising if they don’t take one at some point.

Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
Harrison has phenomenal size, length and athletic ability. He’s physical and fluid in his movements. Discipline has to be the biggest concern. At times, he’ll take poor angles or go for the big hit leading to missed tackles. He should excel against tight ends in coverage at the next level.

Eagles S situation
Safety is one of the more under-the-radar needs. The Eagles have Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, but Jenkins is getting older and McLeod’s cap number is rising. With how much the Eagles moved Jenkins around last season, and with Corey Graham gone, the Eagles’ third safety is important. Chris Maragos isn’t the answer; he’s too important on special teams. And despite how much the team has talked up Tre Sullivan, is he really the guy? A safety at 32 makes sense. He wouldn’t start but could play a lot.

D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland
I have Moore as WR1. He has unbelievably quick feet and reliable hands. He’s tremendous after the catch, always looking to turn up the field. He also shows serious toughness from the wide receiver position. He’ll have to refine his route running, but he could become an elite WR on the outside or in the slot. Moore also has experience returning punts and kicks.

Eagles WR situation
Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins. Good start, right? But after that, the Eagles have a bunch of unproven guys, starting with Shelton Gibson. Even Hollins has more to prove. Agholor finally lived up to his draft status last year but it’s time to start thinking about this future. And Wallace is on a one-year deal. The Eagles could use another weapon … especially one who can return.

Connor Williams, OT, Texas
This pick represents great value. Williams’ 2016 tape had him as the best tackle going into 2017. An injury derailed his season and draftniks began questioning whether he had the length to succeed at OT. The 2016 version of Williams is an elite lineman, whether at tackle or guard – or even center.

Eagles OL situation
DZ: The starters are set, but Jason Peters is aging and Halapoulivaati Vaitai is the only solid depth piece at tackle if you don’t include super-versatile Isaac Seumalo. The interior depth guys are Seumalo and Chance Warmack. The Eagles always emphasize building along the lines, specifically the offensive line.

Eagles taking a RB at No. 32? History suggests it's unlikely

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Eagles taking a RB at No. 32? History suggests it's unlikely

The last running back the Eagles drafted in the first round was Keith Byars. That was 32 years ago.

The last running back they took anywhere in the first three rounds was LeSean McCoy. Believe it not, that was nine years ago.

It’s been true for decades, and it’s still true today. The Eagles simply do not believe in using premium draft picks on running backs.

And it’s hard to blame them.

The Eagles have had 61 picks in the first three rounds over the last 20 years and used just four of them on running backs – McCoy in the second round in 2009 and Brian Westbrook (2002), Ryan Moats (2005) and Tony Hunt (2007) in the third round.

Shady, who is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, is actually the only running back the Eagles have taken in the first two rounds since Charlie Garner back in 1994.

“I think running backs the last few drafts you’ve been able to see guys contribute from every part of the draft,” vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said. “You think about third-round picks, guys like Dave Johnson, Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara. Those guys weren’t first- or second-round picks.”

A lot of mock drafts and experts had the Eagles taking a running back in the first round of last year’s running back-rich draft.

But they took a lineman, Derek Barnett, for the 19th time in their last 25 first-round picks.

And they managed to cobble together a running back corps that wound up third in the NFL in rushing yards despite not a single back taken in the first four rounds of the draft in a key role.

“Coming out of the draft everyone thought last year we needed to get a [running back] high,” Douglas said.

“And we ended up addressing it acquiring one player in the draft (fourth-rounder Donnel Pumphrey, who didn’t play), another player after the draft (Corey Clement) and then two more veterans after the draft (LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi). So there’s a lot of different ways you can get those guys.”

Blount and Clement came into the NFL as undrafted rookies. Ajayi was a fifth-round pick. Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood were both late-round picks.

Add it all up and you have a Super Bowl backfield without a running back taken in the first 148 picks of a draft.

“We thought maybe there would be an opportunity to get one of those running backs [last year], maybe a different guy than Pump,” executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said.

“But we went and as a staff attacked it, getting LeGarrette, who had a great year and was really a huge part of our team, and then making a trade and getting Jay. 

“We’re going to attack it in the draft, we’re going to attack it in June, we’re going to attack it in August, and we’re going to attack it at the trade deadline. … This is not the end of talent-acquisition season. It’s really just starting.”

Teams often will bypass even the most talented running backs in the first round simply because their shelf life is so limited.

For every Adrian Peterson, there are 10 Larry Johnsons, C.J. Spillers or Beanie Wells.

The last running back the Eagles took in the first round to rush for 750 yards in a season was Steve Van Buren.

They’ve drafted 10 since taking him in 1944.

But Douglas said the Eagles aren’t philosophically opposed to taking a running back in the first round, although it’s almost impossible to imagine them actually taking one.

“Great running backs are difference makers,” Douglas said. “We’ve seen that in today’s NFL. Special guys coming out of the backfield and can hurt you in the pass game. If it’s the right player, we’re not opposed to taking him.”