Stats show plenty of positives about Eagles' o-line

Evan Mathis, the Eagles' left guard: 'I think we're steadily making strides. Giving up just nine sacks, that means a lot to us . . . '
Evan Mathis, the Eagles' left guard: 'I think we're steadily making strides. Giving up just nine sacks, that means a lot to us . . . ' (JIM McISAAC / GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: October 19, 2011

THE EAGLES' offensive line headed into the bye week with some numbers that they certainly can be proud of, particularly when you consider the personnel upheaval this unit has dealt with in the first 6 weeks of the season.

There already have been three different starters at left tackle and two each at right guard and right tackle. Despite that, they are tied for fifth in the league in fewest sacks allowed per pass play and are at the top of the NFL charts in rushing.

The Eagles have given up just nine sacks in the first six games after allowing a hefty 49 last season. They're on a 24-sack pace, which would be the third fewest by an Eagles offensive line since the league went to 16 games in 1978.

They are averaging a league-best 170.0 rushing yards per game, which, if they can maintain that production level, would be the most by an Eagles team in 61 years.

"I think we're steadily making strides," left guard Evan Mathis said. "Giving up just nine sacks, that means a lot to us because we need to keep guys off Mike [Vick]. We've got to keep him healthy. And sacks kill drives. We put it on our shoulders to keep him clean."

There remains a lot of room for improvement, though. While the line has managed to keep Vick's sack total down, it has allowed far too many hits on its bread-and-butter quarterback.

It continues to struggle against the blitz, which is a little disconcerting considering that the first team on the Eagles' postbye-week dance card is the Cowboys and their blitz-happy defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan.

"Rob Ryan has every blitz in the book," said NFL Network analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger. "They're going to get a lot of [different] looks and there's going to be a lot of stuff happening at the line of scrimmage. They're really going to have to have their blitz pickup ready against Dallas."

The line also has been blamed for the Eagles' problems in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. Some of that criticism is justified, some isn't.

The Eagles are 25th in the league in red-zone offense. They have converted just 12 of 29 red-zone opportunities (41.4 percent) into touchdowns, and just seven of 20 in the last four games.

In their Week 5 loss to the Bills, rookie right guard Danny Watkins and fill-in left tackle King Dunlap committed back-to-back penalties inside the red zone that blew up a potential touchdown drive. On Sunday, Watkins and fill-in right tackle Winston Justice both missed assignments in the red zone that allowed rushers to come in free and force incompletions.

"Mentally, the game is still a struggle for Watkins," Baldinger said. "Mental breakdowns are hurting him. He might have only had one or two all day Sunday, but that one in the red zone really hurt them. You had a guy coming free at Mike and he missed a throw because of it.

"In [Watkins'] two starts, you can see flashes. They just need to eliminate the mental mistakes and I think he'll be OK. You can see the talent. But it's like when [Jon] Runyan came here. He was a great run blocker, but they didn't use him like that.

"In this offense which is so [much about] finesse and misdirection and so geared to getting the ball to the perimeter, there's a lot of plays where he doesn't really do much. He doesn't really get to come off the ball and hit people or move people."

Vick also has to take a share of the blame for the team's red-zone problems. His passing numbers inside the 20 aren't very good: 17-for-31 with two interceptions, including one Sunday.

The Eagles haven't been productive in short yardage. They have converted just seven of 12 third-and-1's and 14 of 26 third downs of 3 yards or less. They are just 10-for-17 in goal-to-go situations.

Running back LeSean McCoy is fourth in the league in rushing and on pace to break the franchise's single-season records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He has 27 runs of 8 yards or more. But he has converted just 11 of 19 situations of 2 yards or less into first downs.

"The short-yardage problems and the goal-line problems, I don't put it on the offensive line," Baldinger said. "Jason Peters, when he's healthy, is as good a run blocker as there is. But they don't really use him. Everything is a trap, a misdirection, some kind of gimmick almost, rather just literally lining up and just moving people off the line of scrimmage. They don't do that."

Much has been made about offensive-line coach Howard Mudd's preference for athleticism over body mass up front. But with the exception of 6-2, 280-pound rookie center Jason Kelce, it's not like this unit is a bunch of lightweights. Peters is 6-4, 340. Right tackle Todd Herremans is 6-6, 320. Watkins is 6-3, 310. And Mathis is 6-5, 302.

"Kelce is undersized and gets blown up on some of those short-yardage goal-line plays when they trap block and he's got to block back and you got a 325-pound tackle rolling through that gap," Baldinger said. "But he's really good. He's athletic, and a lot of those big runs we've seen McCoy and Vick have this year are because Kelce gets to the perimeter really well. And he's smart. He doesn't make mistakes."

Two snaps with Vince Young behind center Sunday was all it took to make you realize the Eagles are toast if Vick goes down. The responsibility for keeping him in one piece rests with the offensive line and with coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and, of course, with Vick himself, who needs to be smart when he takes off and runs, seeking safe haven out of bounds whenever possible.

"If you just go by the sack number, [the line] has done a good job," Baldinger said. "But it's pretty obvious that Mike is taking too many hits. It hasn't been acceptable.

"One of the reasons they're 2-4 is pressure on the quarterback. Now, Mike's been at fault for some of it, and some of it has been by design. But he's taken far too many hits to this point."

Reid and Mornhinweg did a couple of things Sunday to try to reduce those hits. For starters, they went against their pass-happy nature and ran the ball. McCoy had a career-high 28 carries.

They also had Vick get the ball out quicker. A lot of three-step drops. A lot of 6- and 8-yard stop routes by his receivers. Vick attempted 31 passes against the Redskins. He got the ball out in 3 seconds or less on 27 of them, and in 2 seconds or less on 18.

"I don't know why they don't do more of that," Baldinger said. "You watch cornerbacks against them. They're in their backpedal before the ball is snapped. If you start the game with a 6-yard stop to [Jeremy] Maclin or [DeSean] Jackson, it would be so easy. It looks like warmups the way those corners play.

"Teams have broken down the Eagles' protection successfully several times this year. The Rams did it. The Giants did it. The Cowboys have a great blitz package. They have guys that can blitz. Sean Lee can blitz off the edge. [DeMarcus] Ware's already a great rusher and now, they're moving him around. They're going to see a full complement of [blitz] packages from the Cowboys."

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