For Lane Johnson, familiarity is paying off

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For Lane Johnson, familiarity is paying off

He’s not the new guy anymore, and for Lane Johnson, that’s perfectly fine.

A year after he entered OTAs as the Eagles' first-round pick (and fourth overall selection of the draft) and quickly found himself thrown into the starting lineup, Johnson feels much more relaxed this time around.

“This year is a lot different,” Johnson said. “I know the schedule, the plays and the offense, so I’m more familiar with things. I feel a lot more comfortable than as a rookie.”

While the Eagles have spent this year’s OTAs bringing their top draft picks along slowly and keeping them away from the first team, last year was much different. The team needed a new right tackle and Johnson was expected to contribute right away.

Despite starting all 16 games his rookie year, there is plenty of room for Johnson to improve as he enters his sophomore campaign. While he excelled as a run-blocker, the 6-foot-6, 317-pound tackle struggled at times in pass protection, giving up 11 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

According to Johnson, the biggest key to his development has been the stability of playing in one spot on the line.

If Johnson remains at right tackle as expected, it will be the first time he has played the same position in two consecutive years since high school.

A high school quarterback who arrived at Oklahoma as a tight end, Johnson was starting at right tackle by his junior year before moving to the left side as a senior. Switched back to the right side last year by the Eagles, he is looking forward to staying put for once.

“This is the first year I’ve been able to play the same position for consecutive years, so playing back-to-back [years] at right tackle will be good for me,” Johnson said. “In the pass set, I feel a lot more comfortable on the right side than I did last year.”

Having a year of experience under his belt has also helped Johnson become more vocal and assertive with his decision-making.

As part of a unit with three players (Todd Herremans, Evan Mathis and Jason Peters) over 30, Johnson kept mostly quiet last season and let his veteran teammates make the calls. He relied especially heavily on Herremans, who lined up next to him at right guard.

“He’s not a first-year player now and he’s not relying on Todd Herremans to make the calls for him,” Chip Kelly said before Tuesday’s OTA. “Last year, Lane made decisions by saying, ‘Todd, tell me what to do,’ and then executing it. Now he knows what to do and is communicating a little better with those guys.”

Barring injury, the Eagles will return the same starting offensive line in 2014 that helped them finish second in the NFL in points per game (27.6) last season and helped LeSean McCoy lead the league in rushing.

Having given up the most sacks and having committed the most penalties (eight) out the team’s starting linemen, Johnson will look to be more consistent in Year 2 and prove that he was worth being a top-four pick.

“There was a lot of guessing and being unsure of myself last year,” Johnson said. “I want to come out playing fast right away and be confident and I think when I do that good things will happen.”

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

The Eagles are 3-0. They’re alone atop the NFC East and have been the biggest surprise of the young NFL season.

Doug Pederson’s message to his team: You haven’t done anything yet.

Although the Eagles are riding high, Pederson doesn’t want his team to change its outlook or hard work. That’s what teams have to worry about once they’ve found some success.

“The biggest thing is complacency,” Pederson said Monday. “You think you've arrived. You think you are all that. When that creeps in, that's when you get beat. It's my job not to let that creep in. I've got to keep the guys focused and grounded. I told them this week they're going to travel and go home and people are going to pat them on the back and say how great they are.

“But next Monday, I'm going to tell them, ‘Hey, we're back to work. We're 0-0. This is Game 1 and let's go.’ That's just the way it has to be. You are building for one ultimate goal and that's a few weeks down the road. That's what you are trying to get to. But you can't get there unless you take care of the next opponent. It's my job to keep them focused that way.”

Being 3-0 (they’re one of five 3-0 teams) gives the Eagles a head start, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee them a playoff spot. This is the ninth 3-0 start in franchise history. They’ve made the playoffs just five times in the previous eight. And they recently missed the playoffs after starting 3-0 in 2014 under Chip Kelly.

In NFL history (before this season), there have been 276 teams to start with 3-0 records. Of them, 200 (72.3 percent) have made the playoffs.

“We just have to approach it the same, one day at a time,” Pederson said. “That's the way this business goes. You are on top of the world one minute, and you can be at the bottom of the heap the next. Just got to keep things even-keeled and can't get too high, can't get too low. Approach it the same. Like I mentioned earlier, you can't substitute for hard work. That pays off on Sundays. We just have to stay the course. Again, a lot of football left.”

While the Week 4 bye comes pretty early, the Eagles have a couple key players who will use the time to get healthy. And Connor Barwin pointed out that the bye is coming about closer to the halfway point between when the team started its tough training camp and the end of the season.

Pederson told his players to use the week to get away from football and free their minds. Meanwhile, Pederson and his coaches will use the extra time to self-scout and prepare for the final 13 games of the regular season.

With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action a week before the opener, expectations outside (and perhaps inside) the building were tempered.

The Eagles aren’t an underdog anymore.

“We kind of enjoyed flying under the radar, but obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “For us, nothing different. We’ll keep our preparation the same. We’ll stick our heads down and focus on the work day to day and understand what’s gotten us to 3-0.”

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Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Kenjon Barner has the third-most runs in the NFL of 14-plus yards despite having just 14 carries all year.
 
Wendell Smallwood ran for 79 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the first extended playing time of his career.
 
Despite their gaudy stats, Ryan Mathews will be the Eagles’ featured running back when he’s healthy, head coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
 
“I think we just continue the same way, really,” Pederson said. “When Ryan is healthy, he’s the guy, and then we’ll mix Darren (Sproles) in there and you saw what Wendell can do and we know what Kenjon’s all about.”
 
Mathews, who has been injury prone throughout his career, did not play after two early carries Sunday in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers at the Linc.
 
Pederson said Mathews’ left ankle — originally injured in July, before training camp even began and then aggravated in the season opener against the Browns — is still bothering him.
 
“With that thing, that ankle, it’s something that for him it never loosened up (Sunday) and was stiff and so again (we) just opted on the side of caution more than anything else,” Pederson said.
 
Mathews gained minus-five yards on two carries in the first quarter and didn’t play again.
 
He's rushed for three touchdowns this year but is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry — 36th out of 40 backs with 20 or more carries this year.
 
Meanwhile, Smallwood is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, eighth-highest in the NFL, and Barner, with just 14 carries, has four runs of 14 yards. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry but doesn’t have enough to qualify for the league leaders.

Although Barner has the 58th-most carries in the NFL, only LeSean McCoy and Isaiah Crowell have more runs of 14 or more yards.
 
Sproles has been his usual electriyfing self in the receiving game and returning punts, but he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
 
Since opening day last year, Sproles is at 3.6 per carry — 50th of 52 backs with at least 100 carries over the last two seasons.
 
Pederson said despite Mathews’ injury history — he started more than nine games twice in his first six seasons — he has no problem with the workload he gave him in Cleveland. Mathews had 22 carries against the Browns, his second-most since 2013.
 
“I think that’s a good number for him, honestly, and then for everyone else to get a few touches after that we’re on track,” Pederson said.
 
“It’s kind of with Carson (Wentz), I don’t think you ever want to go into a game thinking you want to throw it 50 times. If you manage it and keep it around 30 and have a successful running game, I think that’s a good balance.”
 
How much Barner and Smallwood will work in once Mathews returns remains to be seen.
 
But it’s hard to argue with their production.
 
“Everybody’s a little different runner,” Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles improved to 3-0.
 
“Wendell did an excellent job between the tackles last night, sort of downhill, Kenjon sort of off-tackle, and of course Darren can do everything.
 
“So we’ll still keep the rotation the same, we’re not going to change much that way, and just want to get everybody in the football game.”
 
It’s tough to put together a running back depth chart for this team. Mathews had the most carries against the Browns, Sproles had the most against the Bears and Smallwood the most against the Steelers.
 
Last time the Eagles opened a season with three different backs leading the team in attempts was 1989, when Mark Higgs had 13 carries in the opener vs. Seattle, Anthony Toney led the way a week later with nine carries against the Redskins (that was the huge comeback win from a 20-0 deficit) and then Heath Sherman had a team-high 16 carries a week later against the 49ers (when Joe Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter).
 
How similar this year turns out to 2003 and the original Three-Head Monster of Duce Staley — now the Eagles’ running backs coach — Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter will sort itself out after the bye.
 
“It’s good to have that kind of depth at that position with as many touches collectively as a group that we’re going to get each game and the wear and tear on that position,” Pederson said. “It’s great to get that many guys in the game.”
 
The Eagles certainly do seem high on Smallwood, the only back in the group that Pederson didn’t inherit from Chip Kelly.
 
Smallwood missed most of training camp with a quad injury and concussion but has been very good since he’s been healthy.
 
“He’s much like Carson in how he prepares during the week,” Pederson said.
 
“We’ve been fortunate with our young players ... and how they work and how they handle themselves on and off the football field, and he’s done a great job in practice, he’s put himself in a position to help us, and it’s great to see him.
 
“We saw it early in the spring, we saw it in training camp before the injury.”

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