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Spadaro: Stoutland University has prepared O-line for latest challenge

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

This is a test, with Lane Johnson out for the rest of the regular season at the very least (hopeful for a return for the postseason, but time will tell on that), for an offensive line that has been the league's best in 2022, that has enjoyed continuity, reasonably good health, and prosperity from tackle to tackle. It is one that Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Jeff Stoutland and his outstanding assistant Roy Istvan have faced before, so there is no flinching as the Eagles discuss and implement their options.

They know the Saints are a formidable defense, one that has allowed 20 points or fewer since Week 9. New Orleans plays straight-up, physical defense. It's a hand-to-hand combat kind of game ahead on Sunday against a New Orleans group that has overcome a host of serious injuries throughout the season to keep the Saints in playoff contention, albeit out of their complete control. New Orleans has won two straight games and, at 6-9, still have a playoff heartbeat.

And the Saints are coming into Sunday's game at Lincoln Financial Field with nothing to lose.

"Every week is a test. Unfortunate outcome in Dallas last week," center Jason Kelce said. "We turned the ball over, a lot of mistakes and it ended up costing us a game. I thought A.J. (Brown, wide receiver) had a great quote talking about the atmosphere at that game, about how that is going to be what these games are going to be like down the stretch, that they're more important. We're playing really, really good teams and all we can do right now is focus on the mistakes that we had and come back and prepare for this one.

"It's the biggest game of the year."

With everything swirling around the Eagles right now – the injuries, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, who is "making progress" said Head Coach Nick Sirianni but still a question mark for Sunday, the return to Lincoln Financial Field after three road games, closing in on the No. 1 seed in the NFC postseason – what is solely on everyone's mind is finding a way to beat the Saints. That is first and foremost on everyone's mind at the NovaCare Complex.

"It's important to win this game just to get back on track," Brown said. "We've got to try to do our part and get this win and then after that we figure out what we need to do."

To win, the Eagles need to replace Johnson at right tackle. There are, as stated above, options. The Eagles can go with Jack Driscoll, who replaced Johnson in both games against the Cowboys when Johnson was injured. Driscoll has started 14 games in his three seasons here – 8 at right guard, 5 at right tackle, and one at left tackle. He is familiar with the position. He and right guard Isaac Seumalo have worked plenty of reps together. Driscoll is strong, he's athletic, and he's technically sound. If he's the guy, everyone knows there is continuity.

The Eagles can also insert 2019 first-round draft pick Andre Dillard into the lineup – either as the left tackle and move Jordan Mailata to right tackle or straight into the role at right tackle. Dillard is big and strong and extremely athletic and while he has only played 35 offensive snaps this season, he has been in Stoutland University for four seasons and has been cross-trained plenty. Dillard has played some reps on the right side this season, at right guard, so the move to the right side wouldn't be as foreign as it might have been a couple of seasons ago.

These are excellent options to have. Neither Driscoll nor Dillard nor even Mailata is Lane Johnson, but they don't have to be: They are certainly good enough to insert and keep the offensive line humming at a high level.

"They just have to go in there and do a job, whoever it is," Kelce said. "We're all coached to be ready. This is nothing new."

Mailata echoed that mentality.

"They've been ready all year. That's the beauty of Stoutland University, preparing guys throughout the whole year so that whenever they have their time to shine, it happens."

This isn't the first time Stoutland has had to replace and repair the offensive line, of course. That's why there is no fluster, no bluster, no panic. The Eagles prepare every one of their linemen – keep Sua Opeta and Cam Jurgens and Josh Sills in mind, too, because they have to be ready when they are called upon as well – and the beat goes on because that's the standard here.

It isn't exactly plug and play, but it's close enough. The Eagles have invested in the offensive line for decades. That priority thinking pays off, and it will on Sunday as well.

"Whoever it is," Kelce said, "is going to play at a high level because that's what we are taught to do."

It isn't yet clear how it will shake out on Sunday, but this much is for sure: The offense isn't going to change and the responsibilities of the guys up front will remain the same because that's the Eagles' Way, that's the Stoutland University curriculum. You either live up to the standard or you aren't here. Those who are here will be ready to play, and to play well.

Because the sole focus is on beating the Saints. One game. One Sunday. One win.

"We have to find a way, that's the bottom line," Brown said. "That's the mentality here. That's all that matters."

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