Eagles Wake-Up Call: Halapoulivaati Vaitai Explains How Jason Peters Has Helped Him Get Better
To say Halapoulivaati Vaitai struggled in his first start at right tackle might be an understatement. The fifth-round rookie allowed two sacks, two hurries, and one quarterback hit on 29 passing plays against Washington in Week 6, according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, the suspended Lane Johnson had allowed the same amount of total pressures in 133 more pass-block snaps played.
In Week 7, however, Vaitai rebounded during his second career NFL start. Aside from a false start penalty early in the game, Vaitai didn’t stand out much against the Vikings, and in a good way. He only allowed one hurry, per PFF. That’s an impressive accomplishment considering the Vikings entered the matchup leading the NFL in sacks per game (3.8) and averaging a lot of quarterback hits (8.6). Carson Wentz wasn’t sacked once on Sunday and only got hit twice.
On Thursday, Vaitai spoke for the first time since his debut. The 23-year-old blocker offered insight as to why he’s shown signs of improvement.
“Just staying calm,” he said. “The first part of the game is the nervous feeling. Right after the first play, I just gotta go out there and trust the process.”
Along with a (likely unintentional) hat tip to the Sam Hinkie supporters in Philadelphia, Vaitai also discussed the specific areas of his technique he worked on after Week 6.
“Arms under,” started Vaitai. “I was punching high in the first game. I came back and [started] punching arms under. Low hips. I was paying attention to the little details mentally. It’s really hard to explain. You go out there, of course I got the false start [because] I was nervous, but I overcame that, and came back and just looking at my guy, seeing what he’s giving me. If he doesn’t rush, then I can just get him. If he rushes, then I just have to [bunker] down. Take two steps and that’s it.”
Vaitai said kicking too much was his “biggest problem” when going up against Ryan Kerrigan. He left himself vulnerable in pass protection.
“I was kicking too deep and over-setting. They took the advantage of the inside and I lost my weakest point. Especially for an offensive tackle, you can’t recover from that. But Jason [Peters] tells me ‘Hey, take two steps and that’s it.’”
Speaking of Peters, Vaitai explained how the 33-year-old veteran and potential future Hall of Fame teammate has been very important to his development.
“He’s just been by my side,” said Vaitai. “He tells me ‘Hey, clear your head, man. Don’t beat yourself up. Just got out there and do your job. Just go out there and be smart. Don’t overthink it. Just go out there and kick to your spot. It’s really simple,’ he says. It’s simple for him, but he says just keep working at it. It’s all about repetition.”
Peters hasn’t been the only teammate who Vaitai has leaned on.
“Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks,” said Vaitai when asked who else has helped him. “They’re like, ‘Hey, we got you.’ Obviously, they’ve been in this spot too. They just tell me to go out there and calm down. That’s really what it is. Because when you start thinking a lot, you start doubting yourself.”
Vaitai’s teammates are seeing improvement in him as well. Kelce praised the rookie blocker.
“Obviously, his pass pro was a lot better,” said the Eagles’ starting center. “When you’re at home, you’re on the voice control [cadence], so you can kind of eye ball the defender a little bit more. But I think he just went into, played with a lot better technique [and] played with his hands a lot more efficiently.
“And his mentality was better. It was better as he got through the game against Washington. As he calms down and as he stops over-thinking things and killing himself — that tends to be a habit of most rookies — he’ll continue to play better and better.”
The challenge for ‘Big V’ this week will be playing on the road again. He’ll have to deal with crowd noise and working with the silent count. The Birds plan to practice inside with loud noise playing on Friday afternoon in order to prepare for the hostile environment in Dallas.
Just because Vaitai rebounded against the Vikings hardly means he’s a sure-fire reliable option at right tackle. The Eagles’ rookie still has a lot to prove. If Vaitai can settle in and be serviceable while filling in for the suspended Johnson, however, that would be very big.
Johnson isn’t able to return until, at the earliest, the final two games of the 2016 regular season. That means Vaitai is on track to make eight more starts assuming he stays healthy and doesn’t get benched. So far, Vaitai has made Doug Pederson’s decision to stick with him look like a reasonable one. It remains to be seen if that will be the case moving forward.
WHAT YOU MISSED
“Just the way [Carson] Wentz goes about his business, he impresses me a lot.” Insiders still think Carson Wentz is better than Dak Prescott.
“The goal is to stop the run.” The Eagles are emphasizing stopping Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys’ run game.
Take a look at our picks for the Week 8 games.
“It will always be — I know to me and I hope to Carson — the Eagles vs. the Cowboys.” Could Wentz-Prescott be the next Brady-Manning?
BLG, John Barchard, and John Stolnis preview the Eagles-Cowboys game on the latest BGN Radio episode.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Ryan Mathews doesn’t think he has a fumbling problem, pens Jeff McLane of the Inquirer.
He fumbled again with less than five minutes remaining in Sunday’s game and the Vikings would score off the turnover, but the Eagles were comfortably ahead and held on. But Mathews’ issues with ball security have certainly been worrisome for coach Doug Pederson.
“It’s definitely a concern and we don’t want to see it, especially in those situations – four-minute situations there at the end of the game,” Pederson said on Monday. “We’ve got to continue to either find out if he’s tired, where he’s at at the end of the game; if we need to put Wendell [Smallwood] or Darren [Sproles] in there.”
Sproles, Smallwood and Kenjon Barner have yet to fumble this season, although individually they don’t have as many touches as Mathews. But the 29-year-old veteran hasn’t been sure-handed over his seven-year career.
Mathews has 20 career fumbles, 13 of which he has lost, in 1,269 touches from scrimmage. That’s a fumble every 63.5 touch. For comparison, the Eagles’ last two lead running backs have been more reliable over their careers. DeMarco Murray has had 17 fumbles in 1,507 touches (88.6) and LeSean McCoy has had 18 fumbles in 2,219 touches (118.3).
There’s a chance Malcolm Jenkins might not stay in the slot on Sunday, writes the Inquirer’s Zach Berman.
This does not take away from Cowboys star receiver Dez Bryant, but he will be matched up on the outside. Whether the Eagles play Jenkins in the slot Sunday will depend on whether they want him matched up on Beasley, how they plan to cover [Jason] Witten, and how Jenkins can also help the Eagles’ run defense.
The 5-foot-8 [Cole] Beasley leads the Cowboys with 33 catches for 390 yards and three touchdowns. The best game of his five-year career came against the Eagles last November, when he finished with nine catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Jenkins covered him that game, albeit with a concussion for more than two quarters.
The smaller, shiftier receivers are a tougher matchup for Jenkins than bigger slot receivers. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz noted Thursday that Beasley is not much bigger than Eagles play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese, but a lot quicker. Schwartz said Jenkins has “multidimensional skills,” although he also added that “not every matchup is going to be ideal.”
“There are a lot of different ways to handle the slot,” Schwartz said. “We’ll probably have maybe three or four different ways to be able to do it, depending on the package. It’s probably a work in progress right now. . . . We have a lot of different personnel packages that we use that are all contingent on matchups, down and distance, and offensive personnel. So I think that will continue.”
Doug Pederson addresses the media for the final time this week at 10:45.
Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.