Philadelphia Eagles News

Offensive Line Flux In Focus

At least Dennis Kelly has stayed in one position in training this week. That's a big plus for Kelly, who has been a guard and a tackle and an emergency get-in-there offensive lineman in his Eagles career. Should he play Sunday, Kelly knows where he'll be.

"I've been taking reps at right tackle, so if it comes to me being on the field, I guess that's where I'm going to be," Kelly said. "I'll be ready for whatever. I'm used to that part of it."

The uncertainty of the offensive line, even after a bye week, is front and, um, center this week heading into Sunday night's NFC East biggie at Dallas. Jason Peters hasn't trained all week, battling the back spasms that sent him off the field early in the loss at Carolina. A big man with back problems is not a good thing, and Peters is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

Right tackle Lane Johnson has taken reps all week at left tackle, his position in his senior season at Oklahoma. He's got a lot on his plate, as the rejuvenated Greg Hardy sees most of his reps over the left tackle. Hardy has fresh legs, a lot of energy, tons of hustle and a variety of moves.

"Outstanding player. Doesn't stop playing. He gets after it all the time," Johnson said, offering his scouting report.

Should Johnson move to left tackle, Kelly steps in at right tackle, where he hasn't started in a regular season game since the 2012 campaign. Kelly started seven games at right tackle in that tough Eagles season, had a bunch of back problems since then and has kind of been the in-limbo offensive lineman off the bench whose been needed here and there in game situations.

Kelly has had a lot of reps at the NovaCare Complex to coordinate with right guard Matt Tobin, so there is some sense of familiarity with the two. Of course, you'd expect the Cowboys' home crowd to cause enough of a ruckus to make the challenge a bit more difficult.

Also, Kelly knows he has to pay attention to the man lining up across from him. It could be Hardy, the proven veteran. Or Jeremy Mincey, a hard-playing pro. Or Randy Gregory, the speed-rushing rookie. Or maybe DeMarcus Lawrence, a second-year player drafted 34th overall in 2014. Lawrence is healthy and he had a big game on Sunday against Seattle with a season-high seven total tackles.

"I definitely have to pay attention to who is lining up across from me," Kelly said. "They're all different. I have to use different technique against each guy. Dallas does a good job of keeping guys fresh and matching up."

The offensive line had its problems in the Week 2 game against Dallas, even with Hardy serving his NFL suspension and Gregory sidelined. Center Jason Kelce has said many times since that game how poorly the Eagles handled Dallas' movement and allowed too much penetration. It's not going to be any easier this time with the Cowboys totally healthy.

"We have to be at our best," Kelly said.

It's a huge moment for the offensive line and for the coaching staff, no doubt about it. How much do the Eagles change their blocking scheme, if at all? What does head coach Chip Kelly tweak in terms of his play calling? Will the tight ends be more involved in the blocking game than in the passing game? Is quarterback Sam Bradford going to be on a steady diet of three-step drops? What is the strategy to get running back DeMarco Murray going in the ground game?

The Eagles haven't had the kind of consistency they crave up front since the 2013 season, when Johnson was the fourth overall draft pick, and Kelly's first, and all five starters played virtually every snap of the season. The offense led the NFL in rushing yards and explosive plays that season and quarterback Nick Foles tossed 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions on the way to the Pro Bowl.

The fivesome that lines up on Sunday could be, should Peters not go, a lot different than the group from 2013. The only holdover in the same position would be Kelce at center. The guards from 2013, Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis, were released in the offseason, replaced by Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner, who has since been injured and replaced by Tobin. Johnson is on deck to see his first NFL action at left tackle. Kelly moves back to the right tackle spot.

Offensive linemen No. 6 and No. 7 for Sunday would be Josh Andrews and Tanner Hawkinson. Andrews, on the active roster this season after spending last year on the practice squad, has seen action on 28 snaps, all on special teams, in seven games. Hawkinson was signed off of waivers from San Francisco three weeks ago and has had limited regular-season duty in his career.

"We have to make sure we're communicating and that we're all on the same page," Tobin said. "That's going to be the key. We don't have a lot of time together but Dennis and I have had a good week. I feel like we'll be fine out there if it comes to us playing next to each other."

Eagles history paints a mixed picture. Winston Justice was left all alone by head coach Andy Reid at left tackle in a 2007 game against the Giants and New York's Osi Umenyiora had six of the Giants' NFL-record-tying 12 sacks of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Injuries forced the 2004 Eagles to start Steve Sciullo and Alonzo Ephraim at the guard spots against Green Bay and McNabb tossed five touchdown passes and threw for more than 400 yards in a blowout victory.

As much as this challenge is on the players, it's on the coaches and the collective strategy. How does the offense function with yet more change to the offensive line, this time the potential full-game absence of All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters? If it comes to that, the Eagles have to rise to the occasion.

And even if Peters plays, how long does he last? He's had trouble staying on the field this season -- he missed significant snaps against the Jets, Washington and Carolina -- and he's going to be 34 years old in January. How long can he perform at his All-Pro level?

That's talk for down the road, though. The focus is on Dallas for Sunday night, and on how the Eagles win the battle at the line of scrimmage, which impacts every other part of an offense trying to hit its stride.

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