The offensive line has been under the spotlight since the news broke that All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles in March. Since the start of the season, the Eagles have also lost promising center Jason Kelce because of a knee injury. How has the offensive line adjusted? What can offensive line coach Howard Mudd do moving ahead? Let's take a look at the offensive line.
1. What will the Eagles do at the tackle positions?
The Eagles signed Demetress Bell to take over the left tackle position after Peters' injury. King Dunlap beat out Bell for the starting job to begin the season, but after Dunlap injured his hamstring against Baltimore in Week 2 it's been Bell's show at left tackle. Bell played well against the New York Giants and looks much more comfortable in Mudd's system since Training Camp. There are still some issues when it comes to responsibilities in the zone blocking scheme.
Will the Eagles turn back to Dunlap? The Eagles are 2-0 with him in the starting lineup. He's provided solid play for the team over the years. He's been healthy the past two contests and the Eagles still went with Bell. With the bye week to evaluate, will the Eagles stick with Bell moving forward?
Todd Herremans has been the rock at right tackle, but even he will admit his play hasn't been as strong in 2012 as it was in 2011 when he was thrown into the right tackle position with no preseason reps. He's allowed two sacks this season according to Stats Inc., which is the most among the offensive linemen. Herremans is still playing solid football. Pro Football Focus rated Herremans as the second-best offensive lineman on the team through the first six games.
What has to be noted is how much more players like tight end Brent Celek, running back LeSean McCoy and even wide receiver Jason Avant have to stay home to block to help the offensive line.
What options do the Eagles have? There's some optimism that Peters could potentially return in 2012, but that won't help the Eagles right now. The Eagles have a rookie in Dennis Kelly, who impressed Mudd during Training Camp and the preseason. In fact, Kelly was active over Bell in the first game of the season. Kelly has been focused at the right tackle position. Could the Eagles put Kelly there and shift Herremans to left tackle? Herremans was a left tackle in college and started a few games there in his rookie season of 2005. He also started there against the Redskins last season when both Peters and Dunlap were injured. Pro Football Focus graded Herremans' performance at left tackle as the best of his very good season.
2. How can the Eagles improve the interior of the offensive line?
Kelce was expected to take a huge step in his second season and it was a huge blow when he was lost for the season in Week 2 against Baltimore. Dallas Reynolds has had some good moments, but then you have situations like the shotgun snap against the Lions that quarterback Michael Vick was never ready for and it resulted in a lost fumble. Even with Reynolds at center, the Eagles still have their same guards in Evan Mathis on the left side and Danny Watkins on the right.
Mathis has graded out as the second-best left guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Watkins, meanwhile, has teased coaches with brilliant highlights mixed in with some struggles. Certainly, Watkins is more in the spotlight because of his first-round draft pick. If Mathis was struggling, certainly the loss of Peters could be to blame, but Watkins still has Herremans to his right.
What can be done with the interior of the line? Steve Vallos is listed on the depth chart as the backup center, but has been inactive the past two games going with Mathis as the backup. The Eagles could move Mathis to center, but who would replace his play at left guard? Dunlap and Kelly have each worked in at guard so that could be an option. The Eagles also have rookie Nate Menkin, who was acquired off waivers from the Texans and looked at as more of a project.
The Eagles reportedly had former Bears' first-round pick Chris Williams in for a visit on Wednesday. He didn't sign with the Eagles as of yet as he also has interest from Arizona. Williams has experience at guard and tackle, but would he be expected to come in and start? He would have to adjust to Mudd's blocking scheme.
3. How can the gameplan moving forward help the offensive line?
Let's look at some of the numbers through the first six games of the season. The Eagles offense overall has been much improved against the blitz in 2012 as Vick's passer rating is almost doubled from last season.
However, the Eagles are at or near the top of the league in a lot of categories such as sacks allowed, quarterback hurries and quarterback knockdowns. Stats Inc. has a formula called protection index which takes into account a number of factors and the Eagles are ranked 28th in the league. Stats Inc. tracks the protection index game-by-game and the Eagles' best performance of the season came against the Browns in Week 1. A good sign is the game against the Lions was the second-best outing for the protection of the quarterback.
It would be easy to say why don't the Eagles run the ball more if the pass protection is struggling? However, the Eagles are tied for third in negative run plays that are not kneeldowns in 2012. In fact, 13.8 percent of run plays have been negative which is tied for fourth-worst in the league. Head coach Andy Reid acknowledged that the reason the Eagles didn't run more against the Lions was the negative plays.
The Lions' matchup was not good for the Eagles' run game as the Eagles' stretch runs played into the hands of the Lions' defensive ends in the wide-nine technique as they kept contain. There is a reason that fullback Stanley Havili has had an increased role in the offense. The I-formation runs have been successful for the Eagles.
Early-down play selection is something to watch. The Eagles have allowed seven of their 17 sacks on first down, which is the most of any down. Those sacks lead to second-and-long situations which end up playing heavily into the opposing defense's favor. Just look at the overtime frame against the Lions last Sunday.
The Eagles have to realize that the offensive line without Peters and Kelce simply is not going to be as good and must adjust. The Eagles have to find a way to incorporate their explosive receivers but not at the expense of the protection for Vick. The Eagles did a very good job against the Lions of working the short to intermediate game with a lot of comeback and out routes to help Vick get rid of the ball quickly.
There are not a lot of options in terms of personnel for the Eagles. They have to find a way to make the most of what they have.
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