In the most difficult moments of the 2020 Eagles season, Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Jeff Stoutland kept his focus to one day at a time, one rep at a time, one player at a time. Injuries ravaged the offensive line, which started 14 combinations in the 16 games played, and yet Stoutland remained remarkably upbeat and purposeful.
"It's all about the teaching of the player who's there at the moment and keep the young players, the guys that are at the backup roles, keep them sharp, you know, really demand from them in meetings," Stoutland said last November. "Really push them like they're in a game. I say to them, I go, 'Look, I want you to pretend that you're literally the starter here and you're going into a game.' That should be your mindset in these meetings each and every day."
Here we are, nearly a year after Stoutland spoke those words, and look what's happening with the Eagles' offensive line. Philadelphia is winning in a big way at the line of scrimmage and fueling a rushing attack that averages 153.4 yards per game, second best in the NFL and only 3.4 yards per game behind first-place Cleveland. The Eagles have averaged 217.5 rushing yards per game in the last four weeks, three of them wins.
It's no coincidence, the winning and the running game.
The Eagles are controlling the line of scrimmage, they're controlling the time of possession, they're playing balanced and efficiently offensively, and they're doing it behind an offensive line that is again among the league's best. All of those tough times in 2020? Stoutland dismissed the injuries and focused on young players getting their chances to play – Jordan Mailata, who started 10 games and is now the team's outstanding left tackle, rookie Jack Driscoll, who started four games and played in 11, interior lineman Nate Herbig, who started 12 games. There was a silver lining, as the Eagles are seeing in 2021.
Even with Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks on Injured Reserve, replaced by rookie Landon Dickerson and Driscoll, respectively, the Eagles are mauling defensive lines with their physicality and dominating the second level of defenses with their athleticism. Johnson is playing terrific football at right tackle and is teaming nicely with Driscoll at right guard. Jason Kelce has played at his usual high level at center, Dickerson has been a road grader at left guard, and has paired with Mailata to provide a massive, athletic, and dominating left side of the offensive line.
Head Coach Nick Sirianni has turned to a strength – the offensive line – around which to construct the offensive scheme and the result is that the Eagles are scoring points in bulk, staying ahead of the chains, finishing drives in the red zone, and making big plays down the field in the play-action passing game. It certainly helps that the depth and versatility at running back – Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, and Kenny Gainwell all have their own style – combined with the transcendent running ability of quarterback Jalen Hurts gives defenses a handful to handle, but everything is possible because the offensive line is winning.
"A defense that plays us has to think, 'How do we stop those running backs and that quarterback? How do we establish the line of scrimmage?' You can try to stop us, but if you don't get past those big guys up front, then ... I don't know," Sanders said. "Give a whole bunch of credit to the O-line for, what, the last three, four weeks. That's when this line has been playing its best ball and the offense has followed."
Four weeks ago would be the Detroit game and it would also mark the second game in which Johnson returned to the lineup after taking some personal time away from the game. To that point, the Eagles had started five different offensive line combinations, but that week, with Johnson back for his second consecutive start and all the rust knocked off, the offensive line came together.
And the group hasn't looked back. That fivesome – Mailata, Dickerson, Kelce, Driscoll, Johnson, from left to right – has now started five consecutive weeks and the offense has gotten better and better.
"We have great tackles. We have freaks out there on the edge," Hurts said after Sunday's game. "Teams know that they are good players, teams know we have a great center, and that we have a lot of experience. We have young guys that can play guard at a very high level. But I think Lane has done great things for a very long time. The way Lane works, the effort, the toughness he has, even last year trying to play on his ankle injury ... I have a lot of respect for Lane in everything he's been able to overcome. He's been great for the team."
Driscoll said the Eagles aren't running "anything crazy" in terms of their run-game structure. Stoutland, in addition to coaching the offensive line, puts together the running game each week and he's playing to what his guys do well. The Eagles have size, athleticism, strength, and depth up front, and that is fueling the offense.
It also helps, for sure, that there are five games of continuity to work with as well.
"A quarterback like Jalen gives us so many options," Driscoll said. "It's really hard for defenses to defend that and you're seeing that. Jalen is such a threat, run or pass, and he can pull it (and run) or he can hand it off. It just makes us that much more dynamic, having a quarterback like that.
"I feel like, personally, every time we go out there we're playing better and getting used to playing with each other. We just have to keep it up and keep getting better. No matter what a defense throws at us, it's on us. As an O-line, we love that. It's up to us to set a tone for the game and it's up to us to get the win."