Eagles' top pick experiencing some growing pains

Lane Johnson
Lane Johnson
Posted: September 23, 2013

The Eagles invested the No. 4 overall pick in April's draft on Lane Johnson and inserted him into the starting lineup before the first preseason game. But they knew that Johnson's development required patience, because one of the draws to Johnson was how he projects, not how he'd play in Week 3 of his rookie season.

The Eagles are experiencing those growing pains.

Johnson, 23, has had an uneven first three games in the NFL. He's been impressive in run blocking, where his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame and unique athleticism have helped him open holes for LeSean McCoy.

But he has struggled in pass protection. Johnson was beaten twice for sacks in Thursday's 26-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and the player he blocked was credited with 31/2 sacks and four quarterback hits.

"Live and learn," Johnson said after Thursday's game. "I'm not going to make any excuses about myself. I didn't play very well. You've got to go out there and learn."

Coach Chip Kelly pointed out that Johnson is in just his third season as an offensive tackle. Kelly praised Johnson for having "all the athletic ability in the world, all the toughness in the world," but he needs coaching.

Whether Johnson was worth such a high pick should be based more on Johnson's development than a performance during a given game.

"One thing I know about Lane that we love about him is that he very rarely makes the same mistake twice," Kelly said. "So part of this game is that you're a by-product of your experiences. Lane's experience so far is three regular-season games and a handful of snaps in the preseason."

Kelly said there are "so many" situations that come up during the week when the coaching staff realizes, "We've got to cover this with him." And as much as something is discussed or taught, Kelly said, Johnson must experienced it to truly grasp it.

Two mistakes this season were evident, and especially costly. The first came in last week's loss to the San Diego Chargers. Michael Vick connected with DeSean Jackson for a 37-yard touchdown that would have brought the Eagles within three points of the Chargers, but the score was nullified because Johnson was flagged for lining up illegally. The Eagles settled for a field goal. It was one of the two illegal-formation penalties charged against Johnson that day.

Johnson said after that game that he thought he was on the line, but took responsibility for the errors. He called them "stupid" and "unacceptable," and said "they may have cost us the game."

The other error that could have cost the Eagles points came after their first touchdown Thursday. Instead of going for the extra point, they lined up in an unconventional formation for a two-point conversion in which five blockers split wide with tight end Zach Ertz behind them.

Long-snapper Jon Dorenbos snapped the ball to Ertz, who was supposed to follow his blockers into the end zone. The Eagles had six-on-five on the outside, so Ertz could have scored if everybody blocked properly. But it appeared Johnson blocked an interior rusher, leaving Tamba Hali running around him unimpeded to stop Ertz.

As for the sacks allowed, Johnson had a difficult time blocking the Chiefs' Justin Houston. Houston is a skilled pass rusher and simply beat Johnson on two of the sacks. There were other times when Houston pushed Johnson too deep in the pocket, and Vick had no space to roam.

Johnson struggled in the first half with a delayed rush, when Houston would come to him, stop, and then take off with a burst of speed.

"It teaches you some valuable lessons," Johnson said. "All I'm doing now is looking forward to Denver."

That's next week's game. He'll be challenged by left defensive end Derek Wolfe, as well as pass-rushing linebacker Shaun Phillips, who had 21/2 sacks in Week 1 from the defense's left side. That's what Johnson is tasked with protecting.

"There's going to be new things come up in the Broncos game that he may not have seen yet," Kelly said. "We'll coach him up on it and continue to grow him. But I think he's got a great future here."


Grading the Birds

By Jeff McLane

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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