Paul Domowitch: O-line puts up a good front

Posted: July 20, 2012

FOR MOST of his career, Michael Vick has had trust issues with the offensive linemen charged to protect him.

The problem with being the best running quarterback in NFL history is that you prefer to rely on your own elusiveness for protection rather than the 300-plus-pound Big Sloppys who line up in front of you.

That was never more evident than last year when the Eagles opened the season with an offensive line that included a sixth-round rookie center (Jason Kelce), a right guard who was claimed off the waiver wire (Kyle DeVan), a left guard who had started just seven games the previous four seasons (Evan Mathis), and a right tackle who had been moved from left guard 2 weeks earlier (Todd Herremans).

"I remember Mike telling me when he found out I was going to be starting, he was like, 'All right, we'll see how this goes,' " said Kelce, who started all 16 games last year. "I mean, a rookie offensive lineman in front of him, and then two when Danny [Watkins] got in there [in Week 5, replacing DeVan at right guard]?

"He admitted he was a little bit uneasy about having me in front of him. But as the year went on, the more comfortable he got with me. As we've gone through the offseason, the more film we've watched together, we're head and shoulders above where we were last year as far as being on the same page and being comfortable with each other."

Said Mathis: "We saw the trust [between Vick and the line] evolve over the course of last season. We made strides daily last year. And that gives us great confidence going into this season."

The Eagles finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for a lot of reasons last year, but the play of their offensive line wasn't one of them. A unit that opened the year as one of the team's biggest question marks developed into one of its greatest strengths by season's end.

The Eagles' line allowed just 32 sacks, which was the ninth fewest in the league. It gave up two or fewer sacks in 12 of 16 games. It also did an excellent job of blocking for LeSean McCoy, who rushed for 1,309 yards and a league-best 17 rushing touchdowns on his way to earning a first-team All-Pro nod.

"[Vick's trust in the line increased] tremendously as the season went on, and since [the end of the season] even more," offensive-line coach Howard Mudd said. "I know the proof is in the pudding and we haven't played any games and nobody's really hit Mike yet. But I think where he's come since the season until now, his confidence in what we're doing and how we're doing it has grown even more."

That's saying a lot when you consider the fact that the Eagles lost their very best offensive lineman - All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters - in March to a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Peters will miss the entire season.

Losing Peters was a big, big blow. But the fact that it happened as early as it did at least allowed the Eagles to go out and find a replacement. A week after Peters went down, they signed the best free-agent left tackle on the market, Demetress Bell.

"Losing Jason is a really tough thing to deal with," Mathis said. "But the fact that it happened so early and we had the opportunity to find a quality replacement in Demetress is the best thing that could have happened if you're going to have an injury like that. If it happened in training camp or early in the season, then you're scrambling."

Bell, 28, has 30 NFL starts on his resume, but he also has missed 17 games the last 3 years with injuries. He isn't Peters, but if he can stay healthy, Mudd doesn't expect the change at left tackle to result in a dropoff in his unit's play.

"I don't anticipate changing the entire offense because we don't have Jason Peters," he said. "Will some of the things [Bell does] be less spectacular? Probably. But we're going to win games with Demetress Bell.

"[Bell is] very athletic. He's exactly what I thought we were going to get when we signed him. There's a good spirit about him. Very tough-minded.

"Jason is one of a kind. I've only coached one other player like him in my whole coaching career and that was Walter Jones. But the truth of the matter is, Demetress has an unusual amount of athleticism, which we like here in our upfront stuff. So we can do a lot with that. I'm really, really delighted to have him. Is Jason hard to replace? I don't even think about that. I just believe this guy can help us win games."

"Obviously it's hard to tell before we put the pads on how a guy is going to handle the new [blocking] techniques and everything," Kelce said. "But Demetress has been a very fast learner. He's fit into the offensive-line group very quickly."

While Bell is new, Mudd expects his other four starters to play at an even higher level this year than they did last year, particularly second-year men Kelce and Watkins.

"I feel like we're right where we left off last year except Jason and Danny are further along because they were rookies, and I believe you get better in the offseason between your rookie and second year, even without playing," Mudd said.

Now that he has a year under his belt, Kelce will take a bigger role in making the protection calls. Last year, he would make the initial call, but Vick made the final pre-snap corrections. Vick hadn't had to do much of that previously.

"Last year, my involvement in protections was just to get us started," Kelce said. "Whatever the rule was for the week, whatever the rule was for the protection, I would get us started. But it was Mike's job to make the corrections, make the audibles.

"Now, they're giving me a little bit more leeway to make those corrections so that we're not eating as much time off the clock by me making a call and Mike having to change it. We're trying to eliminate as much of that as we can."

Mudd had considerable input into the Eagles' decision to draft Kelce. He saw a lot of his former Indianapolis Colts center, five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday, in the kid. But even he was surprised by the poise he showed as a rookie.

"It was remarkable," Mudd said. "I'm trying to think of a rookie player that I've coached who played beyond his years like that. I don't think I've had one. I don't remember one. Maybe Kevin Mawae. He was the same kind of guy."

Watkins, the Eagles' 27-year-old 2011 first-round pick, struggled early last season as he tried to learn both the team's offense and Mudd's blocking technique. He finally replaced DeVan as the starting right guard in Week 5, and had a pretty good rookie season.

"I trusted him and the rest of the coaches trusted him," Mudd said. "He did a little thing [in the Eagles' June minicamp]. It might not have been the perfect thing to do. But it's perfect if you make a call and stay with it and everybody adjusts to it.

"He came back [to the huddle] and second-guessed himself. I scolded him. I said, 'Don't do that.' Physically, he's a monster. You look at the size of his ankles and wrists. It's not from lifting weights. He is just that way. He's a big, strong guy who is going to really help us a lot. I'm really happy with him."

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