OL Review: Eagles Shifting Offensive Philosophy?

When evaluating the state of the Eagles’ offensive line right now, it’s important to manage expectations.

A couple weeks ago, the coaches approached the Cardinals game assuming the offense would be just fine operating as it usually does. They tried little things to help Demetress Bell and Dallas Reynolds, who were making their first starts of the season. But overall, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg believed this offense could still score points by hitting on big plays down the field in the passing game.

After a 27-6 loss, though, it appears they’ve made some changes. The offense is in a difficult spot. On one hand, the personnel – Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek – should thrive in a big-play offense. One in which safeties can never play deep enough because the Eagles just have too much speed. But such an offense requires pass protection that gives the quarterback time to wait for those routes to develop.

The truth is, the Eagles are not going to get that protection consistently with this line. Three of the five offensive linemen – Bell, Reynolds and Danny Watkins – are question marks.

So before the Giants game, the coaches made some fairly significant adjustments. Use fullback Stanley Havili and try to maximize production in the run game with LeSean McCoy. Choose spots to take shots down the field, and provide extra protection to let those plays develop. Have the wide receivers work the short and intermediate routes. Let them make plays after the catch. Give Vick options to get rid of the ball quickly.

It’s probably not the preferred style of play for Reid and Mornhinweg. But given the injuries to Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, the turnovers by Vick, the effectiveness of McCoy and the play of the defense, it’s the Eagles’ best chance to win games in 2012.

And so that’s what we saw for the second straight game yesterday. Later in the week, I’ll try to show some of what I described above with the All-22 tape. For now, here is a player-by-player breakdown of the offensive line after having re-watched the TV broadcast.

Demetress Bell – I think you can get by with Bell if he plays like he did on Sunday. In some ways, it was a King Dunlap-like performance. He wasn’t great, but he didn’t kill them. Overall, there seemed to be too many plays where general confusion among the offensive linemen led to pressure. For example, the Steelers fooled the Eagles on a third down in the third, showing six at the line of scrimmage, but only rushing four. Brett Keisel went right between Bell and Evan Mathis. Neither guy blocked anyone. Not good. Vick scrambled and threw the ball away. But overall, I thought Bell did pretty well in protection. He got his share of help, but was certainly asked to block people one-on-one at times. The Eagles ran to the left side a fair amount. Bell did a nice job on McCoy’s 10-yard run around the left edge in the first. Often times, a tight end lined up next to Bell to try and gain the edge on those runs. Bell did a poor job with his backside block on McCoy’s 2-yard run in the fourth. He didn’t block anyone on the inside screen to Clay Harbor in the fourth. He didn’t provide much of a block on Vick’s QB draw that lost 1 yard in the second. He offered a poor attempt at a cut block on McCoy’s 4-yard run in the second. And he was called for a false start on the first drive. Like I said, an OK performance. If he stays at left tackle, the Eagles need to continue to help him and see how much he can improve. I think the one thing Bell has over Dunlap is that his ceiling should be higher. In other words, if Mudd is seeing the right signs, significant improvement by the time November rolls around is possible.

Evan Mathis – He was OK, but this wasn’t Mathis’ best performance. I mentioned the confusion above. On another play, James Harrison twisted inside, and it looked like Bell was expecting Mathis to pick him up, but he didn’t. Harrison rushed cleanly and got a shot on Vick, forcing an incompletion. Mathis had an issue in pass protection on the throw to Maclin that drew a 31-yard pass interference penalty. Harrison beat him and hit Vick on a fourth-quarter incompletion to Celek. In the run game, Mathis did a good job on McCoy’s 6-yard run in the fourth.

Dallas Reynolds – Hate to repeat myself, but once again, confusion. The Eagles had seven to block four in the fourth, yet Lawrence Timmons ran right between Reynolds and Watkins to hit Vick. Reynolds and Mathis both picked up the linebacker on the play. One guess is Reynolds probably should have blocked Timmons, but Dion Lewis might have been responsible too. On another play, Reynolds had trouble with Casey Hampton, but recovered and took him to the ground as Vick stepped to his left. Overall, I thought Reynolds did a lot of good things. He made a nice block on Havili’s 5-yard run in the first. He did an excellent job of picking up a blitzer on the 10-yard completion to Maclin in the first. He made a nice block on Bryce Brown’s 4-yard run in the second. And he did a good job of switching off his man and picking up a blitzer on the 24-yard completion to Jackson. Again, it’s a matter of expectations. Reynolds is not going to make the Pro Bowl. But he appears to be improving.

Danny Watkins – It looked like he probably missed his assignment in the first. The Steelers rushed four. The Eagles had six in to block, and Timmons rushed Vick unblocked, leading to a sack. I’ll take a look at the All-22, but it seemed like Watkins was probably responsible. On another play, I’m not sure if Watkins was expecting help from Reynolds, but he let Steve McLendon go right past him and sack Vick in the third. Vick fumbled on the play, but Watkins recovered. He also got beat by Jason Worllds on the 2-yard touchdown to Celek. The good? Watkins made a nice block on the Vick QB draw that resulted in a fumble. And it looked like McCoy ran right behind him on the second fourth-and-one carry during the 17-play drive. The inconsistency, specifically in pass protection, remains an issue in Watkins’ second season.

Todd Herremans – Nice bounce-back game after Herremans had issues against the Giants. He was clean in pass protection throughout the game. And he did a nice job on the Vick QB draw that resulted in a fumble.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.