Jason Kelce

How Eagles' O-line bullied Falcons into submission

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AP Images

How Eagles' O-line bullied Falcons into submission

The Eagles' strategy wasn't to simply run the football against the Falcons. The idea was for the Eagles' offensive line to pound the Falcons defense into submission.

It worked.

Everybody expected the Eagles to lean on the ground attack in their playoff game Saturday. Most felt it necessary to hide or protect Nick Foles. Some thought it was time to unleash workhorse running back Jay Ajayi. Strong wind and freezing temperatures were factors as well.

The Eagles had something else in mind. They felt they could exhaust the Falcons.

"We wanted to wear them down physically," right tackle Lane Johnson said.

It's not an innovative concept. Hand the ball to a pair of 220-plus-pound backs 24 times behind an offensive line that features three Pro Bowlers and defenses tend to erode. Defensive linemen tire. Linebackers and defensive backs lose their courage.

Plus, the Eagles were fresh off a bye week and players extra rest for nearly a month with a playoff spot and seeding wrapped up. The Falcons had to scrap and claw just to get into the tournament, then fly from Atlanta to Los Angeles for a game, back home and up to Philadelphia in a span of eight days.

Johnson thinks the Falcons were "gassed" by the end. Probably cold, too. Similar sentiments were shared throughout the Eagles' locker room.

"If you really look through the game," Ajayi said, "you could tell that their defense got worn down early, and then in certain drives where we kept going at them, they got worn down in those drives."

Ajayi was referring to two second-half drives that went for a combined 26 plays and took almost 14 minutes off the clock. Though both possessions fell short of the end zone, the ensuing field goals proved to be the decisive points in a 15-10 Eagles victory.

Ironically, the majority of the damage done on those drives came via Foles and the passing attack.

“I knew we could run the ball just from the first half, what we were able to do," Johnson said. "We were able to constantly wear them down, grind them down, then hit them with some play action on the back end.”

Ajayi carried the ball seven times for 49 yards in the first quarter, while Blount raced to the pylon for the Eagles' lone touchdown in the second. But by the end of the evening, the duo had only averaged 3.0 yards per attempt.

The steady barrage of runs still helped to soften a Falcons pass rush that recorded just one sack and four quarterback hits in the contest. Foles looked increasingly comfortable as the game progressed, consistently stepping up into clean pockets and throwing darts to keep the chains moving.

“I think that we have really good players who ended up getting the job done," center Jason Kelce said. "We’ve been pretty solid in pass blocking all year long with the guys that we have and with the coaches who have put us in good situations.”

The Eagles relied heavily on screen passes, perhaps to make Foles' job easier. Regardless, it had the added benefit of getting their linemen out in space, where they could really punish Falcons linebackers and defensive backs.

No play was more emblematic of the way the Eagles' O-line manhandled the Falcons than a 32-yard screen to Ajayi where left guard Stefen Wisniewski erased two defensive backs in succession.

“We’re all playing our best football right now,” Wisniewski said. “I got a lot better since last year. [Left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai] is playing a lot better. Lane is playing at an elite level. Kelce is playing at an elite level. [Right guard Brandon Brooks] is playing at an elite level.

"It’s just a great group of guys playing well.”

Pederson thinks Eagles fans will have 'huge influence'

Pederson thinks Eagles fans will have 'huge influence'

There's life after Carson Wentz. 

As hard as it has been for the Eagles to move on after their starting quarterback and unquestioned leader tore his ACL under the rosy sky just before dusk about a month ago, they have. They have moved on. 

When asked about his team getting over the shock of losing Wentz, head coach Doug Pederson admitted that he hated to say it, but "the game keeps going." 

"Listen, the train's still kind of moving," Pederson explained this week. "Even though we're sick to our stomachs that these guys are not with us out there on the field, the train is still moving, and the sooner we get over that and get on to the next order of business, the better we're going to become. 

"But that's a process. That doesn't happen overnight, you know what I'm saying? It takes a little time."

When the Eagles lost Wentz, it was a punch straight to the gut. The entire organization felt it. Throughout the next week of practice, no matter how uplifting Pederson tried to be, there were understandably despondent faces slumping through the halls of the NovaCare Complex. There were some gloomy times.  

Wentz has been in the building over the last few weeks and that has undoubtedly helped with morale. He's there in the early morning for QB meetings but is gone by the afternoon when the team begins installing its offense. At that point, it's Nick Foles' team. While Foles shows deference to Wentz as much as he can, it's on him to lead the team into the playoffs as the starting quarterback. 

"We still have to go to work the next day," Pederson said. "Nick [Foles] has to get himself ready to play. I've got to coach the next day. I've got to coach the next quarterback. I've got to coach the coach. Football is not going to stop. The games are not going to stop. We have to get ready for the next week."

Loud and proud
The Eagles haven't won a playoff game at home since the wild-card round of the 2006 season. That was the year before Brent Celek, the longest tenured athlete in the city, arrived in Philadelphia. It's been a long time. 

So you can bet, even with the Eagles' coming in as an unusual top-seeded underdog, that the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field is going to be rocking on Saturday afternoon. The Eagles are banking on it. 

"We want teams to come into our stadium and to feel our fans and to feel the excitement and to feel the noise and to feel everything about Philadelphia," Pederson said. "I've been a visiting player coming into this stadium in a playoff-type atmosphere and it's tough to play because our fans are loud from the opening kickoff to the last whistle of the game.

"So this is what obviously we expect Saturday afternoon, our fans will be a huge influence on the game. You've seen it time and time again whether it be communication, delay-of-games, timeouts being taken, and it's a credit to our fans. So we're excited, number one, to be playing at home in front of those folks."

For those going to the game, the Wells Fargo M, N and P lots will open at 9:30 a.m., K lot opens at 11, and the Citizens Bank Park lots open at 1 p.m. The HeadHouse Plaza opens at 1:30 p.m., while club/suites and the inner gates open at 2:30 p.m. before the 4:35 p.m. kickoff. Have fun!

Playoff connection
It's safe to say Alshon Jeffery is over talking about his game against the Raiders on Christmas Day. Zero catches on two targets. It was arguably the worst statistical game of his six-year NFL career. 

That game has come up a lot over the last couple weeks as folks question whether or not Foles and Jeffery have enough chemistry to work well together in the playoffs. After all, it seemed to take a while for Wentz and Jeffery to get on the same page earlier in the season. 

Whenever the Raiders game comes up, Jeffery is quick to point out the Giants game before it. In that one, he caught four passes for 49 yards and a touchdown from Foles. 

"I can't compare them," Jeffery said of his budding relationship with Foles compared to his rapport with Wentz. "They're two different quarterbacks. But me and Nick had a great game against the Giants. Oakland didn't go as well, but that's part of the game. Sometimes, you'll have a good one, some days it doesn't go your way."

Saturday's game will be the first playoff game of his career. Jeffery is excited about it but said he's also remarkably relaxed. While most would probably be anxious during this long layoff, the laid-back Jeffery is just waiting patiently. 

During the last couple of weeks, Pederson had some of the Eagles with Super Bowl rings get up to talk to the group and offer advice. Jeffery said he appreciated their stories and was happy to hear them, but he doesn't need help getting motivated. 

"Just me, I'm fired up enough," he said. "You didn't have to talk to me about it." 

Quote of the Week I: "We've earned the right to sit and watch games for a week." — Chris Long 

Quote of the Week II: "We have an opportunity to win and put ourselves deep into the playoffs. We win one game, we’re in the NFC Championship at home. I don’t care who we got at quarterback, who we’ve got on offense. We’ll take those odds." — Malcolm Jenkins 

Quote of the Week III: "Basically we're getting ready for war out there. Three-game season, leave it all out on the line. That's our focus." — Jay Ajayi 

Random media guide note: Jason Kelce's three items needed on a deserted island: duct tape, lighter, fishing pole

Eagles added the right type of old guys

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USA Today Images/AP Images

Eagles added the right type of old guys

LeGarrette Blount had the third-most rushing yards in the NFL among players in their 30s. Chris Long was sixth in sacks by players 32 or older. Malcolm Jenkins made his second Pro Bowl team at 30 years old, and Jason Kelce made first-team All-Pro as a 30-year-old. Patrick Robinson had maybe his best year ever after turning 30.

While a lot of guys in their 30s are playing out the string or seeing their skill level decline, the Eagles have gotten huge contributions this year from their corps of 30-somethings.

Some 15 different players in their 30s have played for the Eagles this year, and curiously that's their most since 2004, when 16 did, including guys like Brian Dawkins, Chad Lewis, Jermane Mayberry and Tra Thomas — key components of that Super Bowl team.

Maybe there's something to be said for a nucleus of older players still playing at a high level.

“If you're going to have a bunch of guys in their 30s, you have to have the right type of players," said safety Corey Graham, now 32 and in his 11th season.

"Players that take care of themselves. Players that know how to be professional. Players that still got something left in the tank. If you get the wrong type of guys, guys that are done, you’re going to look bad.

"Fortunately, we have guys who still bring something to the table."

The Eagles are the ninth-oldest team in the NFL, but they finished 13-3 — the same as 2004 — and earned a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

"I think playing 10 years in the league and playing into your 30s is never an accident," said Long, who recorded five sacks and four forced fumbles.

"The guys we're talking about, they work hard, and all that stuff that’s helped them stay in the league and play at a high level for a long time, those same things continue to help them into their 30s.

"Doing the little bit extra that maybe younger guys aren’t doing helps level the playing field. The skills that got them there, the mental preparation, really helps older guys."

Safe to say Robinson, Kelce and Jenkins are playing the best football of their careers. Long has been a huge contributor as a pass rusher. Blount was the Eagles' leading rusher.

Several other players in their 30s — Darren Sproles, Jason Peters and Chris Maragos — were huge contributors before suffering season-ending injuries.

“It feels like almost overnight we inherited a bunch of veteran guys, a really solid veteran group," Jenkins said. "Even losing guys like J.P. and Sproles, we’re a really veteran group and all those guys are huge contributors to the team, in leadership as well what they do on the field.

"If you think about it, we do have some guys who’ve played in this league for a long while, that have been in almost every situation you can be in, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to keep the youth on the team focused on the here and now throughout this journey."

Jenkins used this week's ramped-up full-pads practices as an example.

They were the brainchild of the veteran Player's Council, and when guys like Jenkins, Blount and Kelce ask the coach for harder practices, the young guys fall in line.

"They don't even question it," Jenkins said. "The leaders are saying, 'Let’s do it,' and the young guys believe in the process and follow along. It’s great.”

The big issue with older players is that often they're simply clinging to their NFL lives for that one last series of paychecks.

The minimum wage for a 10-year player is $1 million. We've all seen guys playing for the money at the end, and it's not a pretty site.

"You’ve got to be careful," Graham said. "You’ve got to be careful what type of guys you’re dealing with. If you’re dealing with guys that are just trying to grab a couple dollars, it’s different.

"If you’re getting guys who are professional, who want to play the game, who love the game, who want to win, those are the type of guys you have to look for.”