Staying healthy, Eagles' O-line continues to grow

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Staying healthy, Eagles' O-line continues to grow

Eagles' O-Line discusses game plan for Vikings

December 14, 2013, 10:00 am
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The Eagles, Bears and Redskins are the only three NFL teams to start the same five offensive linemen in every game this season. (USA Today Images)

Evan Mathis was the healthiest of the bunch, and he was hobbling around on a damaged ankle that needed offseason surgery.

The Eagles’ offensive line was a catastrophe last year, with one projected starter gone in the spring, another gone by Week 2, another by Week 7 and another by Week 8.

By the end of the season, Mathis was surrounded by King Dunlap, Dallas Reynolds, Jake Scott and Dennis Kelly.

It’s not the only reason the Eagles went 4-12 and lost 11 of their last 12 games. It’s not even the biggest reason.

But it sure didn’t help.

“We learned the hard way last year that not having everybody out there together could be a really bad thing,” said Mathis, the Eagles’ left guard.

That’s putting it mildly.

This year has been a complete reversal for the Eagles and for the offensive line.

They’ve been together since Day 1, and they’ve been at the heart of everything Chip Kelly has been able to do on offense.

“I think cohesiveness and all that can be over-stated in a lot of instances, but it is without question a big part of offensive line play,” center Jason Kelce said. “And not just from a communication standpoint but also little nuances on how you fit a double-team block, how familiar you are with what a guy’s going to do in a specific situation.

“Obviously, a big part of being in the NFL is just being comfortable and that’s also cohesiveness and playing next to the same guy over and over and over again. The comfort level starts to pick up. So it’s been great for us”

Last year, left tackle Jason Peters missed the entire season after two Achilles surgeries, Mathis struggled with an increasingly bad ankle injury, Kelce was done after a Week 2 ACL injury vs. the Ravens, right guard Danny Watkins was benched after six games, and right tackle Todd Herremans lasted seven games before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

Disaster across the board.

The Eagles changed left tackles five times, centers once, right guards twice and right tackles twice.

The projected starters played only 2,236 of a possible 5,615 snaps, or 39.8 percent.

This year?

Peters, Mathis, Kelce, Herremans and rookie first-round pick Lane Johnson have played an astonishing 4,433 out of 4,520 snaps, or about 98 percent of the Eagles’ offensive plays this year.

They’re staying together, and they keep getting better.

“This year everybody’s been healthy and it’s allowed us the ability to grow and take strides together over the course of the season,” Mathis said.

“We always practice the little thing and to be able to work on your combination blocks and your communication with your linemates over and over and over, you really get a better and better feel for everything when you’re playing the game as a unit.

“It’s definitely something we were missing last year. And this year it’s not just continuity but continuity of five really good guys. Each starter on the offensive line is a very solid player and that combined with our health has allowed us to grow with each day.”

Here is a list of the nine offensive linemen who were on the roster last year who aren’t this year: Demetress Bell, Steve Vallos, King Dunlap, Dallas Reynolds, Danny Watkins, Jake Scott, Matt Tennant, Matt Kopa and Nate Menkin. The only 2012 backup still here is second-year pro Dennis Kelly.

Scoring is up from 17.5 to 25.6, yards per game up from 354 to 409, and the Eagles have bounced back from last year’s 4-12 nightmare with an 8-5 record heading into Minnesota to face the Vikings Sunday.

“It’s real big, just getting that chemistry, getting that camaredrie, just playing together,” Peters said. “Some guys play together all year and give up a lot of plays, but we’ve got a good offensive line and the more we play together the more we jelling, so it’s a good thing.”

Peters did miss a chunk of the Packers game with a couple nagging injuries, but the same five guys have started all 13 games so far.

Only twice since the NFL schedule went to 16 games in 1978 have the Eagles started the same five linemen all year.

In 2000, it was, left to right, Tra Thomas, John Welbourn, Bubba Miller, Jermane Mayberry and Jon Runyan, and in 2006, Thomas, Herremans, Jamaal Jackson, Shawn Andrews and Runyan.

“The biggest consistency is that they have been healthy and all had an opportunity to play together,” head coach Kelly said. “It’s been a huge plus for us.

“I think one of the reasons we've been successful offensively is that all of those guys have been successful. I've seen them over time, they have grown as a group together and that's a positive for us.”

The Bears and Redskins are the only other NFL teams to start the same five offensive linemen all year.

Interestingly, there are only 28 offensive linemen 30 and over league-wide who have started 13 games, and three of them -- Mathis, Herremans and Peters -- are with the Eagles.

“I think [Kelly’s] sports science has done a great job keeping guys healthy, and that’s helped keep us all together,” Johnson said.

“That’s huge, because each game presents a little bit different challenge, so just having the same guys to communicate with and talk to during the season is really key, and I think it’s going to really help us the last few games.”

The Eagles are on pace for 6,562 yards of offense year, which would be 14th-highest in NFL history.

They’re No. 2 in the NFL in yards per game, and if they hold that spot over the next three weeks, it will be their highest finish since they were No. 1 in 1949.

And for 13 straight games, Peters, Mathis, Kelce, Herremans and Johnson have been in the middle of all of it.

“Grow together, progress together as a group,” Herremans said. “There’s no magic to it, it’s just the more people play together, the better feel they get for each other, they know what to expect out of each other, and so far we’ve been very fortunate.”