All-22: How Lane Johnson Projects At Left Tackle
After allowing 90 points in five days, the focus on the Eagles understandably shifted to the defense. Despite an outstanding start to the season, Billy Davis’ unit now ranks 20th in the NFL in points per drive.
However, the increased scrutiny of the defense has taken attention away from an equally problematic unit: the offensive line. In the last three weeks, the Eagles have allowed 13 sacks and 27 quarterback hits. They’ve also averaged just 3.2 yards per carry.
“Obviously, we’ve played really, really poorly the last few weeks,” Jason Kelce said.
Continuity has been hard to come by for the Eagles’ offensive line and injuries have forced backups to play a significant number of snaps and starters to adjust to new positions. That was the case against Detroit when Lane Johnson again shifted to left tackle while Dennis Kelly entered the game at right tackle.
The result? The Eagles averaged just 2.7 yards per carry while allowing six sacks and nine quarterback hits.
“Well, certainly we haven’t done anything in the last two weeks that we would say has been good,” Pat Shurmur said. “The tough ones are when a guy starts the game and only goes a few snaps. Then, you’ve got to kind of jostle it around. The challenge is, just like every team this time of year, you got to go in and perform wherever you’re placed. That’s really where we’re at.”
With Jason Peters having not played a full game in nearly two months, the Eagles have had an extended look at his most likely successor: Johnson. The right tackle has been the Eagles’ best offensive lineman this season — although that bar hasn’t been set very high — and Chip Kelly took him fourth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft hoping that he may eventually replace Peters.
However, that transition hasn’t been entirely smooth for Johnson. He continues to be penalized at a high rate — he’s tied for fourth among all NFL offensive lineman in number of penalties — and although he said earlier in the season he thinks he’s a better pass blocker at left tackle, that hasn’t been the case.
Johnson has played 141 snaps in pass protection at left tackle compared to 350 at right tackle. The rate of which he allows sacks on the left side is more than three times higher than it is on the right. He also gives up quarterback hits on the left side 12 times more than he does on the right.
“It’s like using your right hand all your life, then go over there and try to use your left hand for a little bit. It’s just different,” Johnson said earlier in the season. “It takes time to get used to it as far as muscle memory and getting your balance down over there.”
The dip in Johnson’s performance is also partially due to the improved pass rushers he’s faced. In Johnson’s first career start at left tackle in Week 9, he battled Greg Hardy, who ranked third in the NFL in sacks in 2013. Last week, Johnson faced Ezekiel Ansah, who is second in the league this season in sacks.
The Detroit defensive end tallied 3.5 sacks and three quarterback hits on Thanksgiving, the first of which came in the middle of the first quarter on third-and-9. Johnson appeared to over-set and Ansah beat him with a quick cut to the inside.
“He’s long-armed and he knows it, so he uses that really well,” said Dennis Kelly, who was also matched up against Ansah on Thanksgiving. “He has a good combination of speed and power and adds a second dimension as a pass rusher. You can’t just sit on him and plan on doing one thing because he has different moves and a lot of versatility.”
When Ansah struck again in the third quarter, he also recovered the fumble after hitting Mark Sanchez.
“We struggled with their rush,” Chip Kelly said. “They were only rushing four and they generated a lot of pressure on Mark at times, so we didn’t do a good job from a protection standpoint.”
However, Johnson has also been at a disadvantage because he hasn’t had much practice time at left tackle, which Chip said is why Johnson is less confident on the left side.
“You’d like to see guys play the same spots and train at the same spots consistently all the time,” Shurmur said. “The challenge is to play well and do it sometimes with not as many reps as you would get if you were the starter. It’s just a challenge.
“Everything flips for you. There is some learning that takes place. That’s just the challenge that Lane is faced with. Instead of making excuses for that, he’s just got to go out there and train and get himself prepared to do it if we ask him to.”
‘IT WAS PRETTY HEROIC’
Across the board, the Eagles’ performance on Thanksgiving was disastrous. They didn’t play well in any phase of the game and didn’t show much to give fans hope for the future. However, one small bright spot was Kelce, who played through a left knee injury that was so bad he had difficultly walking leading up to the game.
“It was pretty heroic, him playing,” Shurmur said. “He struggled through the week. I thought he battled and did a good job of being out there.”
Not only did he play, but Kelce — who has struggled for much of the season — appeared to have one of his best games of the year and the top performance on the offensive line. Kelce said he played through the pain because there was little risk of re-injury and it simply came down to how much pain he could tolerate.
Although the unit played poorly as a whole, Dennis Kelly explained how Kelce’s performance helps keep the locker room together despite a rough season. Teammates also noted Kelce’s consistently high effort level and how he played hard until the final whistle.
Chip Wagon tweeted a video of a good Kelce block late in the fourth quarter when the Eagles were down by 38 points.
“It shows he’s all-in and he’s committed to the team,” Kelly said. “He’s committed to what we want to do and when we see that, it’s definitely a motivator because we know he’ll give everything he’s got even if he isn’t 100 percent.”