Eagles

Lane Johnson silences critics with gutty performance vs. Giants

Lane Johnson silences critics with gutty performance vs. Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For a 317-pound man with a high ankle sprain, Lane Johnson moved out of the visitor’s locker room of MetLife Stadium and down the hallway toward the team busses surprisingly quickly. 

Johnson just limped his way through three quarters of the Eagles’ 34-13 win over the Giants (see 10 observations). It was an incredibly gutty performance from a guy who’s been criticized quite a bit since the 2018 season kicked off. 

I just couldn’t let him get away. And, eventually, I caught up with Johnson in the bowels of the stadium to ask him how he felt.

I feel good. I think when people throw my name in the gutter, it just makes me better. So that’s all I got to say.

Then the Eagles’ right tackle limped the rest of the way to the bus for what was sure to be a fun ride home for the now first-place Eagles. He’ll have 10 days to let that ankle heal before the Eagles host the Panthers on Oct. 21. 

Even with the win, the Eagles’ season hasn’t quite gone to plan. They’re 3-3 and clinging to a lead in the NFC East. For that matter, the season hasn’t gone to plan for Johnson either. He’s coming off an All-Pro year and had already given up a couple sacks before suffering the ankle injury last Sunday. 

He had just a few days to get ready for this game and things looked bad earlier on Thursday. So bad, in fact, that the Eagles downgraded him to questionable and a report surfaced that said it would be an “uphill battle” for him to play. 

But Johnson wasn’t missing this one. 

“He got mad heart, man,” right guard Brandon Brooks said. “He’s a grinder, man. He loves the game. S---, I love seeing him out there, man. That’s my guy. He’s really a brother to me. That’s just a testament to the character of the guy he is.”

Johnson went down on the last play of the third quarter after limping his way through most of the three quarters that preceded that play. Eventually, he limped off the field and Stefen Wisniewski ran out as the fifth offensive lineman. 

The teams flipped sides of the field and Johnson tried to sneak his way back on the field, but he had to sit out a play. With the Eagles up 31-13 at that point, he ended up sitting the rest of the game. But it was pretty clear he wanted to come back and it was pretty clear he would have had the game not been a blowout. 

“We play offensive line, man,” Brooks said. “We’re expected to play through anything. Unless the leg’s coming off or the arm’s coming off, we’re going to try to be out there no matter what it is.”

Johnson embodied that on Thursday night and played a good game despite and injury that probably should have kept him out for at least this game. He wanted to play, he wanted to prove his doubters wrong. 

He not only played Thursday’s game with a high ankle sprain, he also played with a chip on his shoulder.

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Rodney McLeod on Eagles secondary: ‘It’s time to live up to that standard’

Rodney McLeod on Eagles secondary: ‘It’s time to live up to that standard’

“The Eagles’ secondary __________”

You can fill in the blank with whatever word you want, but you get the idea. The Eagles’ secondary has struggled the last two years, and Rodney McLeod has had enough.

Time to do something about it.

Part of it is pass rush, part of it is situational, but over the last two years, the Eagles’ secondary has allowed the 5th-most passing yards in the NFL and the 2nd most passing TDs of 40 yards or more and has the 5th-fewest interceptions.

Enter new secondary coach Marquand Manuel. Enter all-pro cornerback Darius Slay. Enter Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot. Enter Jalen Mills at safety. Enter Will Parks and K’Von Wallace. Good-bye Malcolm Jenkins and presumably a few other familiar faces.

It’s time for this secondary to be a strength of the Eagles. Not a weakness.

As a secondary, I felt that we were a little bit disrespected at times and I think now it’s time to live up to that standard,” McLeod said Thursday. “A standard that’s been set with people that played way before us. The Brian Dawkins of the world. The Troy Vincents. Malcolm (Jenkins). I think when you think of guys who have put on the jersey before us, we owe them that. And so we want to get back to the secondary taking over this defense and winning the game and putting the game on our back, and that’s the standard 'M' (Manuel) is holding us to as well as the players in this room.

The Eagles were 29th in pass defense in 2018 and 19th last year. A lot of that was injuries. But a lot wasn’t.

A lot was just a unit that needed to be overhauled.

The Eagles haven’t had a top-10 pass defense since – believe it or not – 2012, when the 4-12 team was ranked 9th.  Mainly because everybody was always up big against them and just ran the ball.

Their last top-5 pass defense was the 2008 unit, with the late Jim Johnson’s last year as defensive coordinator and current Bills head coach Sean McDermott as secondary coach.

Manuel replaces Corey Undlin, now the Lions’ defensive coordinator.

McLeod said Manuel is already emphasizing to his group that it’s time for the Eagles’ secondary to get back to playing like the Eagles’ secondary of old.

“I think people respect him because he’s played the game, because of his passion and because of the way he coaches this group,” McLeod said. “And because the expectations that he has for us. It’s a very high standard. He’s coached a lot of good secondaries and we want to be another group to be respected in this league and treated as such. He’s going to fit perfectly. We’re going to be good.”

This is the first time since 2013 that Jenkins won’t be lining up at safety for the Eagles, but it’s also the first time they have a Pro Bowl cornerback in his prime on the field since Asante Samuel in 2011.

A lot of newcomers, a lot of change. And McLeod is determined to put out a product on the field that fans can appreciate and opposing players will respect.

It’s been a while.

“It’s a talented group,” he said. “It’s a room full of depth and talented individuals and hungry guys too, willing to compete, and that’s what we have to do. We have to create that culture and bring out the best in all of us in order to be the best.

“We’re all professionals and guys are committed and that’s what you need in order to win. For this season, it’s all about who is able to eliminate distractions and adapt and sacrifice. Both in and out of this building. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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The biggest hurdle as Jalen Mills attempts to change positions 

The biggest hurdle as Jalen Mills attempts to change positions 

The good news is that Jalen Mills knows the Eagles’ defense. And he knows the safety position. 

Now he just has to learn the safety position in the Eagles’ defense. 

The effectiveness with which he does so will have major implications for the Eagles in 2020 as the team tries to have the former cornerback replace their veteran leader Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary. Jim Schwartz thinks Mills has all the tools to play safety in his defense but Mills has to prepare to play it in a most unusual offseason. 

The toughest part of this transition for Mills comes down to one word: Communication. 

That’s why once the virtual spring began this offseason, Mills and returning free safety Rodney McLeod put in extra time on their own. The two had private film sessions to work on chemistry and communication. At Mills’ request, they started with Week 1 and went through the Eagles’ opponents for the 2020 season. 

I really just wanted to hear the way that he communicated,” Mills said. “Because, of course, he’s been on the back end and I was playing on the outside. Now, me hearing how he’s communicating. I told him I didn’t want to switch anything that he did because he’s been successful at that spot. Just more of learning from him and the different type of verbiage that he uses. 

“So I don’t get out there and say something and it may throw him off or slow him down. I just wanted to make sure that he’s still playing fast. At the end of the day, I know the defense, I just want to get the exact verbiage that he may have been using on the back end.

For the last four years, McLeod has played next to Jenkins and the two developed a rapport. While McLeod has played with Mills, it has been in a completely different capacity. They need to be way more in sync this year to make things pop. 

Mills explained that when he played outside corner, if he couldn’t hear a call from the MIKE linebacker, he’d look to the sideline for a hand signal and then be ready for the snap. But as a safety, Mills will have more responsibility. Once he gets a call, it’s part of his new job to relay that information. He’ll have to make sure everybody — corners, linebackers, defensive linemen — knows the call. 

And to do that, it’s all about communication, knowing how to communicate with the rest of the defense. That’s where those extra sessions with McLeod came into play. 

Mills also needs to get rid of some of the rust when it comes to just thinking like a safety again. It’s been a while since he played the position at LSU. 

“Making sure he sees the game the right way as he’s now switching positions and the hardest part for him is not defense, right?” McLeod said. “Like he knows all the schematics but it’s now lining up in a different spot. It’s now him understanding, ‘Where do I need to have my eyes here?’ ‘How are you seeing things?’ 

“I believe the chemistry, man, is going to be a lot easier than people think. And so far, so good. It seems like within the couple of days that we’ve been together as a unit, he’s really taken a step further. I’m very confident that we will be good once Week 1 hits and he’ll be ready to rock and make a lot of plays at his new position.”

While the Eagles are technically already in training camp, their first practice won’t happen until Aug. 12. After that, their first padded practice won’t be until Aug. 17. 

So from the time the Eagles begin padded practices they’ll have less than a month to prepare for their season opener in Washington on Sept. 13. That means less than a month of practices for Mills to make his position switch. 

That’s where that extra time might really pay off. 

If Mills doesn’t work at safety, the Eagles also have free agent Will Parks and rookie K’Von Wallace on the team. But it’s pretty clear that Mills is the guy to get the first crack at the job. 

“Though he is making a position switch,” McLeod said. “I think he will thrive in his position.”

We’ll find out soon enough. 

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