Before Eagles fans felt a sense of dread over losing Carson Wentz, there was the impending doom caused by the season-ending injury to Jason Peters. Turns out, just like at quarterback, they were going to be fine at left tackle.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been largely fine in place of Peters all season but may have played his best when the Eagles needed it most in the NFC Championship Game. Working against Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen for much of the contest, Vaitai silenced the three-time Pro Bowler and defense’s best rusher.
Big V opened holes in the running game and did his part to keep Nick Foles upright in the pocket. Technically, Griffen was credited with two quarterback hits, though both were ineffective — one well after Foles released the football, the other a glancing blow.
Prior to the matchup, Eagles coach Doug Pederson called Griffen “a game wrecker.” Yet, a supposed backup offensive lineman shut down one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
It’s time to give Vaitai his due. The kid is pretty good.
Early on, Pederson gave Vaitai plenty of help. It wasn’t necessarily in the form of straight double teams, but the Eagles used the traffic created by tight ends running their routes and simple misdirection to slow Griffen’s attack.
But in the second quarter, Pederson began trusting Vaitai to block Griffen one-on-one. It worked. Some observers would even be tempted to say Big V had his number on this particular series.
Here, Griffen tries to bull rush his way through Vaitai. The 6-foot-3, 273-pound defender does get some initial push, but the 6-6, 320-pound tackle stands his ground, keeping the pocket clean for Foles.
Next play, Griffen attempts to use his speed and go around the edge on Vaitai. That’s not happening, either. The second-year player is in perfect position the entire time and barely lays a finger on the rusher, who winds up running himself right out of the play.
Finally, on the very next pass-rush opportunity, Griffen goes to his vaunted spin move. Vaitai sticks with him the whole way. Not even close.
The Eagles wound up punting two plays later, but Vaitai’s ability to handle Griffen allowed Pederson to open up the offense. For example, the 41-yard flea flicker to Torrey Smith in the third quarter doesn’t happen if there isn’t the utmost confidence in Big V to win his one-on-one matchup.
It wasn’t exactly a pancake block or very pretty but Vaitai got the job done. Same again on Foles’ earlier 51-yard touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, which required the offensive line to hold up in protection for five full seconds until the ball was released.
Vaitai put the exclamation point on his near-flawless performance at the end of the game. With time winding down and the Vikings fully aware the Eagles were running the football, Big V helped clear the way for two first downs.
Minnesota never got the ball back in the final 5:52 seconds, in part because of blocks like these from No. 72.
Griffen is 30 years old. The eighth-year veteran managed just 2.0 sacks over the final seven games of the season, including playoffs. It’s possible, perhaps likely he was worn down by the NFC Championship Game.
Regardless, some people still have this perception that going against Vaitai can rejuvenate a pass rusher who’s in a slump. That clearly was not the case here and hasn’t been for most of the season.
Over the course of his first two seasons in the league, Vaitai has proven he can be a full-time starter in the NFL — maybe better. After all, he just shut down the top defensive lineman on the No. 1 defense in football, doing his part to clear the way for the Eagles’ trip to the Super Bowl.