Stefan Wisniewski

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.”

'Real good' news on Sidney Jones, healthier Eagles

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USA Today Images

'Real good' news on Sidney Jones, healthier Eagles

Sidney Jones has been practicing again this week after getting on the practice field for the first time last week. 

How does the young corner feel? 

"Real good," he said. "Good first week of practice. I'm just getting the rust off, getting my feet wet, trying to get back."

Jones, who is on the non-football injury list after tearing his Achilles during the pre-draft process, began practicing last week. That kicked off a three-week window in which he's allowed to practice. After that, the Eagles either have to activate him or send him to IR. 

On Friday, Jones admitted getting back into game shape is a "work in progress" and emphasized the team wants him to take it slow. 

Last week, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likened Jones' first week of practice to the first week of OTAs. That makes it seem pretty unlikely that Jones will play at all during his rookie season. 

But after a week and a half of practice, does Jones think he'll play this year? 

"I don't know," he said. "Can't tell you all that."

The good news is, Jones said he has "complete trust" in his surgically repaired Achilles tendon. He said he doesn't even think about it anymore on the field. 

As for players who are actually on the active roster, Jalen Mills (ankle), Derek Barnett (groin) and Stefen Wisniewski (ankle) were all listed as limited participants on the Eagles' injury report. The report was an estimation because Friday was just a walk-through. But Mills and Barnett didn't practice at all Thursday, so listing them as limited is good news. 

When asked in the locker room how his ankle felt, Mills said it felt good. Then he jumped up and touched the top of a doorway to prove it. 

Wisniewski, who missed the Giants game, walked through the locker room with a heavy black brace on his right ankle. If he can't play Monday, Chance Warmack would start. 

Mychal Kendricks (foot), Patrick Robinson (concussion) and Warmack (hamstring) were listed as full participants Friday.

2014 Nick Foles played with a far inferior offensive line

2014 Nick Foles played with a far inferior offensive line

Nick Foles is a changed man. The sixth-year veteran is older, wiser, more experienced; all attributes the Eagles stand to benefit from coming down the home stretch with their backup signal caller.

There's also something about Foles that might look different in his second stint with the Eagles. Don't be surprised if you see a more confident, poised quarterback in the pocket, too.

After all, the Eagles may actually be able to protect Foles this time around.

When last we saw Foles in an Eagles uniform in 2014, fans were not happy. One season after setting a since-broken NFL record with a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he was leading the league in giveaways through nine weeks. Furthermore, Foles looked skittish, unwilling to step up in the pocket, and developing the terrible habit of throwing off his back foot.

Most observers placed the fault squarely on Foles, chalking it up to a former third-round draft pick's inevitable regression. However, extenuating circumstances were at least partially to blame.

The Eagles' offensive line was, in a word, a mess.

In 2013, when Foles was busy making history, all five starting offensive linemen played in all 16 games. The unit paved the way not only for a gunslinger in the passing attack, but a rushing championship for running back LeSean McCoy. It was the best line in the league, without a doubt.

Foles would not be so lucky the following year. Lane Johnson was suspended for the first four games, while his replacement at right tackle, Allen Barbre, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Left guard Evan Mathis was also hurt in the opener, missing the next seven games, and Jason Kelce went down in Week 3, missing four. Four starting-caliber players, out.

If Foles wasn't feeling comfortable in the pocket, that might be because there often was none. The Eagles were relying on the likes of Andrew Gardner, Matt Tobin, David Mold and Dennis Kelly for much of the season.

Lines don't get much more patchwork than that.

Foles wound up with a broken collarbone just as the O-line was beginning to get healthy. Before that, he was taking unnaturally deep dropbacks, throwing off his back foot and generally getting rid of the football as quickly as possible in the interest of self-preservation.

Not surprisingly, Foles' touchdown-to-interception ratio dipped dramatically to 13-10, along with three fumbles lost -- totaling 13 turnovers in eight games. Also no coincidence, his completion percentage dipped from 64.0 to 59.8, and his yards per attempt from 9.1 to 7.0.

When Foles was traded to the Rams the following offseason, he didn't fare any better. But while we weren't following his progress nearly as close, we know the Rams were in the midst of 10 straight losing seasons with offensive finishes no better than 21st. The franchise was a career killer. Look no further than Sam Bradford's improvement with the Eagles and Vikings for evidence.

Foles may not have been as good as the hype surrounding his magical 27-2 campaign. He also isn't as horrible as he looked with the Rams, and he probably isn't even as bad as his final season with the Eagles seemed at the time, either.

This is not to absolve Foles of his failures completely. Clearly, he is somebody whose success is dependent on the supporting cast around him to some extent. And by the end of that '14 season, he was most definitely feeling some false pressure and making unforced errors as a result.

That's not the type of performance the Eagles should expect now, not regularly at least, so long as the line holds up. Left tackle Jason Peters is missing from the lineup, but this unit is still far superior, provided there are no more major injuries -- perhaps even if there are.

Foles has plenty of weapons at his disposal in 2017, too. No McCoy in the backfield, but Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement is a quality stable of ball carriers, while receivers Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor are all capable of bailing out their quarterback in the passing game.

Yet, the biggest difference is up front. If Foles is protected, he's more than capable of dissecting opposing defenses. We've seen that firsthand.

Foles may not be a world beater or break a bunch more records. But as long as he's upright, the Eagles have a a shot -- and this time, they have a legitimate shot at keeping him on his feet.