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Offensive Line Ready For Its Next Step

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- You work with what you have, and what the Eagles have had at times along the offensive line is not what they expect to have when the regular season opens on September 13. Instead of Shawn Andrews, Winston Justice is playing right tackle. Instead of Jason Peters, the Eagles have used Todd Herremans at left tackle. Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles are playing major reps at the guard positions as Stacy Andrews works himself back into full-time duty.

And there is Juan Castillo, in perpetual motion, urging his linemen to use the proper hand placement, to move their feet and to punch and slide, punch and slide.

You work with what you have. And Castillo has a thinned-out version of line the Eagles think will take the field against Carolina. He exhorts each and every one of his linemen with the same vigor when they do as they practice, when they deliver a power punch to an attacking defensive end or tackle. Day after day and week after week, the Eagles have gone through the same drills. Repetition is the key. Muscle memory is paramount. If you are an athlete and you have some smarts and a lot of heart, you have a chance to play for Castillo.

Otherwise, the hard-driving Castillo wants no part of you.

"Oh, he works you. Constantly. Juan does not let up, and that's a good thing," said Jamaal Jackson. "You have to understand that he is doing it because he wants you to be the best player you can be. He is going to invest the time in you and if you put in the work and use the technique he teaches you, you will be a better football player. That's what matters to Juan."

One of the major questions entering training camp centered around the center of the offense. Jackson and Herremans were the only returning starters playing the same positions as last season, and Castillo understood that it would take time to integrate Peters into the left tackle spot, Stacy Andrews into the picture at right guard and Shawn Andrews at right tackle. All through the spring, the Eagles were encouraged by Peters, and by Shawn Andrews at right tackle and by the return to good health by Stacy Andrews.

Well, the encouragement has been dampened a bit by a quad injury that limited Peters throughout most of camp. Peters is just now rounding into his best shape, and he is in line to start Thursday night against New England. Stacy Andrews has been a positive, practicing every day and slowly and surely working his way into full-time duty, although it is unlikely that he will play against New England. Andrews has yet to play in "live" practice sessions.

The big, big question is Shawn Andrews. He practiced every day in the spring and looked great, reported to training camp in high spirits and then tweaked a back muscle during the conditioning run on the first day of camp. Andrews has yet to practice and as the Eagles break camp, they really don't know when Andrews will be ready to go.

The common thinking is that the Eagles are losing too much time here, and that without a good, solid few weeks of all five of their projected starters taking rep after rep after rep, there is no way the offensive line can come together in time to play a good Panthers front seven. If you think that, you are underrating Castillo. He is one of the very best teachers in the game, and so his players learn very quickly what they need to do to please him.

In the meantime, without the Big Three ready on a full-time basis, Castillo has players like Cole and Justice and Jean-Gilles taking important reps, and he has rookie Fenuki Tupou making tangible progress. If the Eagles had to start the season today, they would probably have Justice at right tackle, Jean-Gilles at right guard, Jackson at center, Herremans at left guard and Peters at left tackle. Somewhere, Stacy Andrews would be close by, trying to play as many snaps as he could.

However, the season doesn't start today. And nobody is pushing the panic button because of the injuries that have kept so many key linemen off the field for most of the camp.

"Not at all," said Jackson. "Everyone is getting his work in. We're getting there. Stacy is out on the field, working with us and we're getting more and more comfortable there. We had the entire spring with Shawn at right tackle. We know what kind of player he is. We know what he can do. We all have confidence that no matter which five players are out there, we're going to have success."

One of the most startling revelations of camp has been Justice, a second-round draft pick in 2006. Three seasons of almost no production put Justice in a produce-or-lose-a-job position, and he has responded well. Justice has taken almost all of the starting reps at right tackle and has graded well, has been more physical and has impressed the coaches enough that they have genuine confidence in his play.

Second-year man King Dunlap continues to step forward in his work at left tackle. He credits Castillo for breaking down his technique and building it back up.

"Juan makes everything so precise. You have to have your hands in the right position and you have to step exactly as he wants you to step," said Dunlap. "I think that because I played basketball it helped me get it all down. I understand what he is teaching. For me, because I'm so tall, I have to make sure I have my leverage and play low.

"I'm a totally different player from last year. This game is big for me. I know that. I'm looking forward to the experience of being out there."

The Eagles are going to keep nine or 10 linemen. They have some evaluating to do. The starters are the starters and we know who they are going to be, Shawn Andrews' health pending. Cole and Jean-Gilles should be the top reserves. Two or three other jobs are up for grabs in the preseason.

"Everybody is fighting and improving every day," said Dunlap. "We've worked together since the spring. We have put in a lot of time and now we have to go out and do it against New England."

The Patriots have a 3-4 front and they will blitz a lot off the edges. The Eagles worked against the 3-4 in the spring and then again during Tuesday's practice. For Peters, Thursday is a chance to tune up his game. Same with Jackson. For Justice and Dunlap and so many others, the game means the world and they are approaching it with that kind of urgency.

"It's always fun to play a game, preseason or regular season," said Jackson. "We've been going against the same guys every day in practice. I know I'm looking forward to seeing a different uniform in front of me. Every game, you learn something new."

All eyes are on the guys up front. Some are new to the team. Some are veterans here. Some won't be around for much longer. Together, they present a picture worth studying in preseason game No. 1.

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