Halapoulivaati Vaitai rebounds after brutal start against Panthers

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Halapoulivaati Vaitai rebounds after brutal start against Panthers

It looked like "Big V" was heading for another big disaster. 

It was almost impossible to watch Julius Peppers go around Halapoulivaati Vaitai on the fifth play of Thursday night's game and not think back to his first start last year, when Washington's Ryan Kerrigan turned him into a turnstile. 

That's the way things looked when the 37-year-old Peppers went around Vaitai and got a strip sack on Carson Wentz to set up the Panthers' first drive in great position. 

"Yeah, it's unfortunate," head coach Doug Pederson said. "He took just a bad set line on the sack. He learned from it, obviously, the hard way. But, hey, listen, Peppers is a great player. But he settled in. He did some nice things after that. Trust his technique. Trust his fundamentals, and he did a nice job. It's great to see, again, a young player step in on a short week and play against a fine defensive end like he did. It just gives us a lot of confidence moving forward with him."

It was a bad start for "Big V," who was filling in for a concussed Lane Johnson, but it didn't turn into a complete disaster.

"After that first drive, I bounced back and I trusted my coach," Vaitai said after the Eagles' 28-23 win. "There's always room for improvement so I'm going to take the time off, reflect and then come back ready to work."

No, Vaitai wasn't great the rest of the game, but he wasn't awful either. He at least didn't ruin the Eagles' entire game plan. 

And while the Birds finished 2-8 without Lane Johnson last year, they're now 1-0 without him this season. 

Getting Vaitai ready to start in just a few days probably wasn't very easy. Johnson suffered a first-half concussion against the Cardinals and the short week didn't allow him enough time to clear the league's concussion protocol. 

Then, on Thursday night, the Panthers sent all kinds of blitzes and used a lot of D-line stunts that seemed to confuse the Eagles early. Eventually, the Birds were able to settle down and figure out where the blitzes were coming from. 

Thursday was the 2016 fifth-round pick's seventh career start. He had played this season as an extra tackle in run formations; that role was assumed by Isaac Seumalo against the Panthers. 

Johnson will have extra time to clear the NFL's concussion protocol because the next game is a Monday night tilt. So it seems likely Vaitai will be heading back to the bench. But maybe he'll have more confidence after taking a punch and getting back up. 

"Being the sixth man off the bench, it's unfortunate for Lane," Vaitai said, "but that is my job and so I have to step up and fulfill that." 

Eagles notes, quotes and tidbits: Rivera thinks Pederson has been 'outstanding'

Eagles notes, quotes and tidbits: Rivera thinks Pederson has been 'outstanding'

There were plenty of people who were surprised last year when Jeff Lurie decided to hire Doug Pederson as the Eagles' head coach. 

Ron Rivera wasn't one of them. 

The head coach of the Panthers, the team the Eagles will face on Thursday Night Football, has known Pederson for nearly 20 years. Back in 1999, when Pederson was brought to Philly by Andy Reid to be the Eagles' quarterback until Donovan McNabb was ready, Rivera was brought in to coach linebackers. 

At the time, Rivera was a 37-year-old getting a position coach job for the first time and Pederson was a 31-year-old quarterback finally getting the chance to start.

Pederson spent just one year with the Eagles as a player but he left enough of an impression that 18 years later, Rivera didn't hesitate to answer this question. 

Did you think then that Pederson could be a head coach? 

"Oh yeah," Rivera said on a conference call with Philadelphia reporters on Tuesday. "If coaching was going to be the path he took, I had no doubt that this young man was going to get the opportunity. He's so smart, he's a hard-worker and he's got the passion to want to win. 

"You look at what his situation was when he got to Philadelphia with Andy and you can see him help with the development of Donovan. He was right there. He was what you hope to have in a guy that's coming in to be in that role. And that's exactly what he did. I just remember saying a couple times, 'he's going to be a good coach one day.'"

Rivera remembers Pederson as a team player in '99. He said Pederson was in a "tough" situation back then and the Eagles simply weren't very good. "He stood tall and never complained about anything," Rivera remembered. 

The two went their separate ways after 1999. Pederson went on to stay in the league as a player for five more seasons before eventually beginning his ascent in the coaching ranks. Rivera had three stops before the Panthers hired him as a head coach in 2011. 

Now both head coaches, they're just two of several who have learned under Reid and then got a team of their own to lead. 

"I just think the one thing [Reid has] done, and personally in my case, is he allows his assistant coaches to grow within the system, within the offense or defense," Pederson said. "So the defensive guys, back when they were under Jim Johnson, when they were here, have flourished. And listen, it helps to have successful seasons, too, and good offenses and good defenses. Whether they have gone on to get other coordinator jobs or what, if they were a position coach and just watching their careers over time and the success that they have had, that's the biggest thing. He just allows you to work and to grow and further your career that way."

Rivera's first two seasons at the helm in Carolina didn't go that well. The Panthers went 6-10 his first season and 7-9 in Year 2. It wasn't until the third season that they made the playoffs. They lost in the divisional round in 2013 and 2014 before making it to the Super Bowl, losing to the Broncos, in 2015. 

That's probably why Rivera understands patience. And it's probably why he thinks Pederson has done a pretty good job so far. 

"I think he's done outstanding," Rivera said. "I think last year was one of those things where they got off to a hot start and expectations rose way too quick for them, to be fair. I think right now, they're exactly where they should be. I think that first year is always tough and you just try to win as many as you can but at the same time, you have to temper your expectations. I think he's done a great job with that. I love the way they've come out. I like the energy and the way he coaches."

No Fletch, no problem
The Eagles have been without Fletcher Cox for the last two games and the defensive line has held it together. Sure, the Eagles really miss their best defensive player but Beau Allen has played well in his place and Tim Jernigan has taken his game to a different level. 

"They're just taking it upon themselves," Pederson said. "I did challenge the D-line last week [that] we’ve got to generate some pass rush and they were able to do that last week and create some edges and it just boils down to each man just doing his job and doing his assignment. Whether your top pass rusher is there or not, you’ve got to figure out ways. With [Jim Schwartz] and (defensive line coach) Chris Wilson, they are utilizing the stunt games and line games and things that create some edges for the D-linemen to get to the quarterback."

In place of Cox, Allen and Jernigan have gotten most of the work, but Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham have been playing inside on third downs. And Elijah Qualls and Justin Hamilton have gotten snaps as well. 

In addition to Cox, the team has also been without fourth option Destiny Vaeao, who is questionable heading into Thursday's game. 

Seeing Seumalo? 
Isaac Seumalo, who began the season as the Eagles' starting left guard, has been inactive for the past two weeks, but should dress on Thursday because of Lane Johnson's concussion. That doesn't mean he'll get playing time at his old post. 

The Eagles are going to continue their left guard rotation on Thursday, but Stefen Wisniewski will start and get most of the snaps, with Chance Warmack rotating in occasionally. 

There's a chance we could see Seumalo, though. This season, the Eagles have used Halapoulivaati Vaitai as an extra tackle/tight end in some run formations. “Big V” won't be able to do that against the Panthers because he'll be starting at right tackle. 

Maybe we'll see Seumalo fill that extra tackle spot on Thursday. 

"Yeah, we train all — we pretty much have all of our offensive line ready to step into that role," Frank Reich said. "It just depends, by game plan, how much of that we want to do, depending upon certain things that they do schematically [and] certain personnel matchups. Sometimes in coverage, we're trying to do things where sometimes when you're — well not to get into some of the details — but there's just certain different ways we like to use it, so that's why it's important those guys all know how to play that position."

Quote of the Week I: "Yeah, I mean it's a lot easier when you don't have to do the long press conferences, then you can get back to work." — Schwartz on dealing with a short week 

Quote of the Week II: "When you go in there, there's a bunch of old people in there. Sitting in the cold tub, laying down, just getting their bodies right." — Rasul Douglas on the Eagles' cold tub room this week 

Quote of the Week III: "The celebration was pretty good. I have to admit. It was good." — Reich on the Eagles' baseball celebration on Sunday 

Random media guide note: Something on Najee Goode's bucket list is a HALO jump — a 30,000-foot skydive at a small landing target. 

5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Panthers

5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Panthers

There are just three 4-1 teams left in the NFC and two of them will face off at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night. 

Most of the Thursday night games don't usually generate a great product, but things could be different this week. 

The last time these two teams faced off was in 2015, also in Charlotte. The Panthers won that one 27-16. 

After the Panthers went 6-10 last year and the Eagles went 7-9, when the schedule came out, this Thursday night game didn't have a ton of buzz. But five weeks into the season, it's shaping up to be a matchup of two tops teams in the conference. 

Here are five matchups to watch: 

Christian McCaffrey vs. Nigel Bradham 
How do the Panthers use McCaffrey? 

"A lot of different ways," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. He then said it's kind of like how the Eagles used Darren Sproles. McCaffrey is a running back by title but his real value to the Panthers is his ability to morph into a receiver out of the backfield. 

So far this season, McCaffrey has 27 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown. Bradham will end up on McCaffrey a ton Thursday but he won't be alone. At times, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks might get turns. Same too for Patrick Robinson if the Panthers move McCaffrey into the slot. The Panthers are still figuring out how to use their eighth overall pick, but they're getting there. 

Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Julius Peppers
"Big V" is in this week for Lane Johnson, who suffered a concussion Sunday. Vaitai has looked much better — Frank Reich said he looks more "aggressive" — this season, but he hasn't gotten to play the regular tackle position yet. He'll get an entire game Thursday. Remember, since the start of last season, the Eagles are 9-2 with Lane Johnson and 2-8 without him. 

While Vaitai will start the game facing off against Mario Addison, I'd expect to see the Panthers push to get Peppers against him at times. Peppers leads the Panthers with 5½ sacks. The 37-year-old is defying time since rejoining the Panthers this season. With 149 sacks, Peppers is the active career leader and is fifth all time. 

Zach Ertz vs. Panthers linebackers
Ertz has been the most productive tight end in the league over the first five games of the season. Sure, you can argue if he's been the best, but you can't argue whether or not he's been the most productive. Ertz has 32 catches for 387 yards and two touchdowns, on pace to shatter his career highs. 

This week, however, will be tough. The Panthers have the best linebacker duo in the league with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. There's a reason the Panthers have given up just 17 catches for 188 yards against opposing tight ends so far this season. 

Kelvin Benjamin vs. Jalen Mills
The Panthers have two receivers who are at least 6-foot-4 in Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Benjamin is 6-5, so when Mills is on him, he'll have a five-inch advantage. Rasul Douglas on the other side of the ball is at least a little longer. 

The good news for the Eagles' corners is neither of these guys is as fast as the guys they faced last week, but they are big. The Eagles' corners are aggressive and against bigger targets, they'll have to make sure they don't get called for interference. 

Cam Newton vs. Eagles' defense
It takes an entire defense to stop Newton. His ability to extend plays can be a killer, so both the front four and the secondary need to work together to thwart him. First, the D-line needs to sack him when they get their hands on him. Second, the corners have to have tight coverage to make him hold the ball. 

Fletcher Cox stopped short of calling Newton the hardest quarterback in the NFL to bring down; he gave that honor to Ben Roethlisberger. But Newton is close. 

The thing that makes Newton special is that ability to buy time in the pocket. In that sense, he's like a much more accomplished Carson Wentz. Newton hasn't taken off running a ton this season but he's still dangerous there. The Eagles' linebackers will need to keep an eye on him. 

After a rough start to his season, Newton is again starting to look like the guy who won an MVP award a couple years ago.