Lane Johnson could only watch from home as Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan almost single-handedly beat the Eagles in 2016 — not once, but twice.
“It still affects me today,” Johnson said Wednesday after practice. “It just motivates me to go out there and go play even harder this year.”
Johnson missed both dates with Washington last season because of a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The result was nothing less than disastrous for the Eagles, who were suddenly rendered powerless to stop one of the NFC East’s most formidable pass rushers.
With Halapoulivaati Vaitai making his first professional start in place of Johnson at right tackle, Kerrigan registered 2½ sacks and five quarterback hits in the first meeting alone. The second time around, Kerrigan went around Matt Tobin and knocked the ball free from Carson Wentz in the final minute, the ensuing turnover closing the book on a late Eagles’ rally.
Kudos to Kerrigan, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, but this was no coincidence. The Eagles finished the season with a 5-1 record when Johnson was in the lineup, and went 2-8 without.
“All last season, you can put a lot of the losses on me not being with the team,” Johnson said. “It's a new year this year, so we're just ready to get started off the right way.”
Johnson just spent the last 13 months discussing how helpless he felt throughout this ordeal. After waiting nine weeks from the time word got out about the suspension until learning his fate, Johnson was struck with the maximum ban four games into the Eagles’ season. By the time he returned, the team was eliminated from playoff contention. To this day, Johnson has an ongoing lawsuit against the NFL and NFL Players Association.
Who can blame the guy for being excited about the opportunity to finally turn the page? The key for Johnson will be to not get too excited.
“I really don't like getting too hyped for a game,” Johnson said. “Usually, if you get too emotional, you don't play as well as what you want. Try to keep it calm, and just go out there and go play.”
The thing is, Johnson’s track record against Kerrigan is kind of spotty. The last time the two faced off in 2015, Kerrigan was not credited with making a single play in the Eagles’ backfield. Earlier that same season, Kerrigan recorded one sack and two tackles for loss. In the five games the two have gone head-to-head, Kerrigan has three sacks and four tackles for loss.
“Kerrigan has always been a good opponent for me,” Johnson said. “A guy that tries hard every play, great motor, so it's going to be a challenge.”
Some give and take is to be expected. After all, Kerrigan is up to 58½ sacks over his six-year career.
“He’s a great player,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “He's a high-motor guy, relentless finish. That's what you have to identify with him.
“To have Lane back, a little confidence there. Should be a good matchup all day, and just have to give the guy respect. He's a good pass rusher.”
Wentz is certainly breathing a little easier knowing Johnson will be in there this time around. By the time injuries had taken their toll on the offensive line, the Eagles were down to their fourth right tackle in the waning moments of their most recent game against Washington.
“We’re excited for Lane to be back,” Wentz said. “We’re excited for, thankfully, right now where we’re at, the entire O-line is healthy. That’s a big perk. A big strongpoint of our offense is that O-line and those big boys up front, so having Lane back, having everybody be healthy to start the year is exciting.
“He’s definitely a rock-solid guy at right tackle, so it will be good to have him.”
Nobody feels worse about Johnson’s suspension than him — except maybe Wentz, who bore the brunt of that absence on the football field. Thankfully for Johnson, the time for apologizing is finally over, and he can make up for it by going out and keeping his quarterback upright.
Atonement begins Week 1 with keeping Kerrigan at bay, but Johnson realizes it’s going to take more than one game to truly make amends.
“This whole season is meaningful to me,” Johnson said. “I’ve let down this team too many times. I’m on a thin leash here, so I need to go out and go play well and just be a good teammate.”