by Ben Muth
The Eagles-Saints Wild Card matchup seems like it happened forever ago. I chose write about the Bengals the week after the game, and then missed last week due to technical difficulties (Thanks, Marriott), so it seems pretty silly to write about a game from a month ago. Instead, we’re going to focus on some observations about the Eagles offensive line from the season as a whole.
Philadelphia fans should enter the offseason feeling good about their offensive tackles. Jason Peters returned from not one, but two torn Achilles tendons. Peters put together a fine season, one that would likely guarantee him Comeback Player of the Year honors if he played any position other than offensive line.
I was surprised by how well Peters was moving by the end of the year, both in his pass set and at the second level in the running game. It didn’t seem like he had lost a step to the injuries -- I never would’ve guessed he hadn’t played at all in 2012. I still don’t think he’s the player he was before the injury. He isn’t playing with as much power in the running game, and he seems to struggle anchoring on bull rushes a little more, but he’s still a damn fine offensive tackle.
At the other tackle spot, Lane Johnson overcame some early struggles (the Kansas City game in particular) and put together a solid rookie year. Obviously he’s a hell of an athlete, but what’s most encouraging isn’t just that he improved, but that you could see a step-by-step improvement throughout the season, particularly with his pass set.
At the beginning of the year he would too often bend over at the waist and try to head-butt pass rushers. The result was Johnson getting killed by a variety of arm overs and spin moves from edge rushers. Here’s an example from the Week 2 game against San Diego.
Johnson gets a good initial set -- he’s always had nice footwork in his pass set -- and is in good position. Then he ducks his head, the edge rusher vanishes outside, and Todd Herremans’ crotch is the only thing that prevents Johnson from eating grass. Like most plays that end up with your face in Todd Herremans’ groin, it was not pretty to look at.
A couple of additional thoughts about the play. First of all, Dwight Freeney played for the Chargers this year? Did you remember this? Second of all, ducking your head against the guy with maybe the best spin move in NFL history could be a sign of clinical insanity.
As the season went along though, Johnson got much more comfortable using his hands and developed an accurate, if at times tentative, punch. One problem he solved was that he would set the exact same way on just about every dropback. He’d always kick to about 3-to-5 yards and throw both hands straight at the defender’s chest. It was a good base set and punch, but defenders would start timing it and be able to throw a counter move just as Johnson was punching. The rookie was just too predictable.
But later in the season Johnson started to make adjustments and add some wrinkles to his game. He began to mix in an occasional jump set with his regular pass set. A jump set is where you fire off the ball like a run block, even getting your head involved, before sitting back down into a more traditional pass set posture. He also started mixing in a little short set against wide rushers, where he would take a quick one or two step pass set before going out and attacking them, almost like a draw play. Here’s an example from the playoff game against the Saints.
This was a third-and-7 in the first quarter. Johnson took just a single kick in his set before making a beeline for the defender. Look at how wide he engages the rusher. He catches the defender off-guard and is able to land a big punch and knock him even further outside. The defensive end starts a yard and a half inside the hash, and ends on the outside edge. That’s a great job widening the pocket for the quarterback.
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I’m not saying Johnson is a finished product by any means. Now that he’s not waist-bending and head-butting, he’s playing too high, but he’s gone from a good athlete that could run block a little and was a liability in the passing game to a solid overall tackle with almost limitless potential because of his athleticism. For someone that was supposed to be a bit of a project coming out of school, Johnson seems to have adapted to playing in the NFL pretty quickly.
The guy on the interior that gets all the headlines is Evan Mathis. Mathis has been interesting to watch this year. I think he’s a very good player that gets beat very badly a little more than you think he should. He’s a punishing and almost impossibly consistent run blocker that can handle a three-technique all by himself and will absolutely lock a fool up at the second level. But as a pass blocker, I’d say he’s just solid, not spectacular.
He looks good in pass protection 95 percent of the time, but when he does get beat it looks absolutely terrible. It’s often the result of a jump set that goes wrong, usually because the defensive tackle gives a quick swim. He gets beat completely clean right off the snap, or he locks his defender down right at the line of scrimmage -- there doesn’t seem to be a ton of in-between. Honestly, he reminded me of Joe Staley from a year ago: world beater in the run game, but just inconsistent enough in the passing game to make you scratch your head.
At center, Jason Kelce is either solid or a bit of a hindrance depending on what you value from a center. He’s good at the second level (although I think playing in Chip Kelly’s offense really helps him here) and I think he’s a very strong pass blocker for a center. Because he’s generally better in the passing game than the nose tackles he’s blocking, the Eagles will double-fan a lot (guard and tackle to both sides slide outside) and leave Kelce on an island in the middle. It’s something Philly does more often than most, and it definitely helps the rest of the Eagles offensive line.
When he’s by himself in the running game, however, Kelce will too often get beat by defensive tackles if he doesn’t have help. He doesn’t get knocked into the backfield, but defensive tackles will hold their gaps down the line and throw Kelce to the side to make a play at or just past the line of scrimmage.
Stuff like the play above just happens too much. It doesn’t seem to be a technique thing -- he has a decent base, and while his pad level isn’t great, it isn’t terrible either. I'm just stabbing here, but it could be a strength issue. Whatever the cause, it was a consistent issue.
Kelce also has a problem when he has to reach a shaded nose. He jumps way too far outside, and lets the nose run right behind him up the field to disrupt the play. If he’s working with Mathis or Herremans in combination, Kelce is very effective in the running game, but I don’t think he’s the type of guy that can block a nose tackle one on one. Which is fine -- most centers can’t handle that -- but it’s something that hurt the Eagles this year, particularly in the playoff loss.
You may notice that the column is light on Todd Herremans analysis this week, but that’s just because there isn’t a whole lot to say. He’s an above average run blocker and probably a tick below average as a pass blocker. Every offensive line is going to have a guy that’s just adequate, one that you hope a late-round draft pick from a couple of years ago can replace. Not because they’re bad players, but because they’re just okay, and young late-rounders are cheap.