Why the Philadelphia Eagles O-Line is NFL's Best
NFL Super Bowl - The Philadelphia Eagles are heading back to the Super Bowl after beating the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game last Sunday. The story of the game was the injuries to San Francisco’s only two healthy quarterbacks that turned the contest into a blowout in the second half. Without a functioning quarterback, San Francisco was never going to be able to compete with Philadelphia, but watching the game back, I think the 49ers might have been in trouble no matter who they had under center.
I, along with anyone that has been watching, have been singing the Eagles’ offensive line’s praises all season. Considering the defense they were up against, Sunday’s championship performance was another really impressive display. They consistently gave Jalen Hurts plenty of time to throw (he was sacked just once). And while the running stats weren’t gaudy, they did a nice job picking up consistent gains with their backs when they needed them.
The guy I want to highlight first didn’t play the best game of anyone up front for Philadelphia. In fact, he may have played the worst if you graded pass or fail on every play. Still, considering what he’s dealing with (torn groin) and who he was matched up with primarily (Nick Bosa), Lane Johnson’s play may have been the most impressive performance on all of championship Sunday.
Outside of a really bad back or neck issue maybe, I cannot think of an injury that would be harder to pass-block with than a torn groin. Not only does pass-blocking demand a ton of lateral movement, but it’s lateral movement while a 280-pound man is pushing on you. Take this play.
Johnson (65) gets a nice strong kick set and beats Bosa to the point. Bosa counters with an inside rip move so Johnson has to redirect inside. Johnson anchors down and stops Bosa’s progress. Then Bosa sees Hurts think about escaping the pocket, so the defensive end goes to move outside, causing Johnson to redirect.
Again, the fact that Johnson is moving and anchoring like this against a pass-rusher as good as Nick Bosa with a torn groin is insane to me. If you have ever pulled your groin, you know just standing up from a chair can be brutal. I know Toradol works, but I’m wincing watching this rep, and the fact that Johnson more than held his own all game in those circumstances is something I’ll remember for a long time.
Here’s another example of Johnson having to change directions and push off his groin multiple times.
The 49ers are running a twist. Johnson has the looper (Bosa, 97), so he sees it immediately and gets inside to take over the penetrating defensive tackle (Arik Armstead, 91). Once Armstead overtakes Johnson, Johnson has to slide back out to continue blocking Armstead again. Notice Johnson’s posture at the top of the rush too. He’s sitting his ass back, his back is straight, and his arms are locked out. That’s great positioning, and this is a great job by him and right guard Isaac Seumalo passing off this twist.
As impressive as Johnson’s performance was, the best player on the field for Philadelphia’s offense on Sunday was center Jason Kelce. Hearing that someone was "all over the field" is pretty common for defensive players in football. I’m not sure I have heard an offensive lineman’s performance described that way before, but that’s how I would describe Kelce’s play on Sunday. He seemed to be everywhere when something good was happening for the Eagles.
This is outside zone from shotgun, which is a play I usually hate because I don’t think the defensive line gets threatened enough by the running back’s path to really widen and create seams for the back to cut back into. But if your center is going to toss the defensive tackle (Javon Kinlaw, 99) around like this, it doesn’t matter what the back’s path is.
The key—other than how quickly Kelce gets off the ball and into the defensive tackle—is Kelce’s hand placement. Look at the center’s right hand. It’s on the defender’s hip where the center of gravity is, not up high on the shoulder pads. Kelce gets that back hand on the hip and just launches this poor defender 5 yards outside. Then the center climbs and gets the play-side linebacker (Dre Greenlaw, 57).
Like I said, Kelce was everywhere it seemed. Go back and watch the first GIF in this column again and look at Kelce there; look at how much he widens the defensive tackle on that play in case Hurts wants to take off and run up the middle.
After Johnson’s toughness and Kelce’s kinetic greatness, the thing that really stood out to me is how much consistent movement the Philly offensive line was able to generate on San Francisco’s interior defensive line. This next play is just a 6-yard gain from the second half, pretty ho-hum on its own, but it’s a good example of how the Eagles grinded up the 49ers front.
I want to focus on the left guard and tackle, Landon Dickerson and Jordan Mailata. Look at the 49ers' defensive tackle (Kevin Givens, 90). Mailata and Dickerson get into him and immediately blow him off the ball. When you watch it from the wide angle, you can see they actually lose contact with him at first because they knock him back faster than they can move their feet.
Dickerson takes that first inside load step, and then I want you to notice him come through with that left foot and forearm flipper. That’s textbook Crowther sled work. Then Mailata comes down and washes Givens out. Mailata is a little high—you'd rather his hands be on the hip like Kelce’s were the play before rather than in the armpit—but being as big and strong as he is helps you get away with technique that may not be perfect. They knock that defensive tackle 6 yards off the ball and catch the safety (Talanoa Hufanga, 29) in the mess.
This next play was Philadelphia’s first touchdown and this time it’s Kelce (62) and Dickerson (69) dominating up front.
The Eagles snap the ball at the 7 and the defensive tackle ends up at the 1 and never gets close to getting a hand on the back. Seumalo and Johnson are good on the right side too, but that combination between Kelce and Dickerson is just awesome. Once again, they’re blocking the linebacker with a down lineman. This is borderline pornographic for offensive line enthusiasts.
And this wasn’t a case of the Eagles wearing down San Francisco over time. It wasn’t a 49ers defense worn out because their offense couldn’t get anything going after the quarterback injuries. The Eagles got after them from the jump. This last play was literally the first running play of the game, and Philly’s double-team is already absolutely bullying the 49ers' 3-technique.
It’s Mailata and Dickerson again, and that’s 5 yards of vertical movement once more. The Eagles don’t get anyone on either linebacker, but those linebackers can’t make a play until a gain of 5 because they have to dodge the 900-plus-pound mass of humanity that is Mailata and Dickerson rolling a defensive tackle down the field. Mailata in particular is mauling the dude. There was some really fun stuff to watch from this game.
It is nice to see an offensive line that has played so well all year lead a team to a Super Bowl. I have watched a lot of really good units over the years writing this column, and this Philly group is one of the best. It’s too rare that the team with the best offensive line in the game advances to its grandest stage, and I’m looking forward to watching them one last time.
17 comments, Last at 13 Feb 2023, 11:49am
#2 by theslothook // Feb 03, 2023 - 11:06am
I wish the NFL had an official award recognition per position so that individual offensive linemen could be recognized beyond all pro teams.
I bet the average fan thinks Travis is miles above his brother Jason by simple virtue of the positions they play and the way the NFL awards skill positions.
#7 by Pat // Feb 04, 2023 - 8:51am
There's a story Travis Kelce tells about the time that Dick Vermeil came in to address the Chiefs before a game, talking about the toughness and determination needed to win. Vermeil called out Travis to stand up, and he does, all "yes coach!" and quietly thinking he's going to get some praise.
Then Vermeil goes "Your brother Jason is the best damn football player I've ever seen."
#12 by Pat // Feb 04, 2023 - 5:12pm
I don't think it's exactly "one weak link" but the overall idea is right. I've always thought offensive lines can handle one subpar guy - you basically never end up with full "one on one" blocking anyway.
Plus the real extra key is the QB and whoever's coordinating the blocking. If you know where the pressure's coming from and you know where you're likely to struggle, you'll be fine.
The real problem is when you get a situation like Indy had early last year, with, say, both tackles being terrible. There's just no way to deal with that.
#6 by theslothook // Feb 03, 2023 - 1:56pm
I wish Ben would review some all time units' film and use that as a baseline anchor to compare against future teams
Ben, could you pretty please with sugar on top watch that vintage Chiefs line from the 2000s or maybe the hall of fame hogs from the glory day Redskins?
#14 by billprudden // Feb 05, 2023 - 9:48am
That would be cool. Even if he didn't decide on a statistically #1 unit, but instead one that scratched his qualitative / stylistic itches. So a great power line or a great Shanahan-style zone line, I really don't care. But yes, let's ask Ben to claim a 'best' line, and show us why. Even if it means watching grainy Mike Munchak VHS gifs...
#15 by DoubleB // Feb 05, 2023 - 11:29am
You go too far back and you start getting to completely different rules. It's worth watching some of those Super Bowl recaps from the real early games (60s and 70s) that are showing on the NFL Network to see how different the blocking is. OL can't use their hands, but can hi-lo DL all over the field.
#16 by Pat // Feb 06, 2023 - 9:16am
Literally every single offensive linemen the Eagles have is a home-grown product. The only offensive line coaches that any of them have ever known in the NFL are Howard Mudd and Jeff Stoutland, and only Kelce knew Mudd (who retired after the '12 season).
Every one. Every starter, every backup. No offensive lineman on the Eagles has ever played a snap for another NFL team. At least of the teams in the playoffs, 2 others (Minnesota and Dallas) had fully home-grown starters but no one had a completely home-grown set of offensive linemen.
Jeff Stoutland basically taught all of the offensive linemen on the Eagles everything they know, at least at the NFL level.
It's insane. He's one of the most valuable coaches in the entire NFL and until this year, barely any fans knew who he was. Everyone talks about how amazing a GM Howie Roseman is, and part of that is drafting any offensive lineman Stoutland wants.
#17 by TomC // Feb 06, 2023 - 1:53pm
1) I love this (and I am decidedly not an Eagles fan).
2) Not shown in any of these GIFs are the plays where Johnson was out of his stance and 2 yards in the backfield well before the snap. Good on him for recognizing and exploiting an officiating inefficiency, but those really should have been false starts.
#19 by Pat // Feb 07, 2023 - 8:32am
There's also a "cheat" point people don't realize which was covered with a podcast with Andrew Whitworth: linemen in a two point stance are allowed to adjust their back foot, so top tackles "adjust" by starting their set right before the snap, so long as their trunk/front foot stays stationary.
Basically, pre-snap movement has become much more prevalent in the past decade-ish.