Overall, Andre Dillard’s first NFL game was a success last Thursday night.
But there was one thing in particular that stood out to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.
“The way he was forcing the switch on some of the twist stunts,” Stoutland said, “it’s just so natural for him and he’s so quick and he can change directions so well.”
By my count, the Eagles faced four stunts on Dillard’s side during Thursday’s first half. A few came toward the end of the second quarter. This play with 32 seconds remaining in the half was the best example I found of textbook execution from the first-round pick:
That play resulted in an incompletion, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Dillard played the switch perfectly (along with Matt Pryor) and gave Sudfeld time to make the throw.
When I showed my NBC Sports Philadelphia colleague Barrett Brooks this play, he told me he was most impressed by the way Dillard didn’t take an extra step after he recognized the stunt and his head snapped right. Instead, Dillard actually attacked his next assignment.
When I approached veteran offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski about this story, I told him it was specific. When I told him it was about how his rookie teammate is handling stunts, Wiz laughed and said, “That is specific.” Admittedly, it is. But the point here is that dealing with these quick stunts in the NFL is often something that trips up rookie offensive linemen. It didn’t trip up Dillard. In fact, the 23-year-old looked like he’s been doing this for years.
Stoutland stressed that these twists are much faster in the NFL, but as much as he harps on it, there’s nothing they can really do in practice to replicate the game speed. That’s why it was so important for Dillard to get 33 snaps last Thursday.
The big key to stopping these stunts is recognition. Stoutland explained that when an edge player isn’t speed rushing, the tackle has to recognize something is up. A fraction of a second can make a huge difference. That recognition needs to happen quickly.
“Extremely,” Dillard said. “You see how fast all these edge rushers are, so you just have to react to that and I think I’m getting better at it each day. Just gotta keep working on it.”
So first, the tackle needs to take the right set line. In many cases, he then has to diagnose what’s happening and stop the penetrator. But he has to stop the penetrator and keep his balance, keep his head out, push off and get set again to block the looper.
All the while, the tackle needs to be communicating with the guard. Those two need to be in sync and know when to pass off the block.
It’s not easy.
“It’s one of the harder things we have to do,” Wisniewski said. “Young guys often struggle with that at first. Like you said, it’s something that once a young guy starts to figure that out, you’re like, ‘OK, this guy is processing things quickly and reacting quickly.’”
Dillard handled these stunts well, but it wasn’t much of a surprise. Stoutland said he already knew Dillard had “the critical factors” for an offensive lineman, but it’s a matter of repetition and reaction time. Pryor said it’s Dillard’s quick feet that allow him to look so smooth.
Dillard said all the work in practice helped him prepare for his first game. But he isn’t about to start celebrating yet.
“I think I did alright on some of them,” he said.
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