Last Sunday in the NFL the Detroit Lions survived against a three-win Chicago team when a last-second, 46-yard field goal sailed wide. Last Sunday, the winless Cleveland Browns went into the fourth quarter against the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars trailing by only a 10-7 score before the Jags pushed their way on to a 19-7 win. Baltimore also struggled through three quarters against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers before pulling away in the fourth. The six-win Chiefs succumbed to the two-win Giants. New Orleans stretched its winning streak to eight games, but they needed a nearly miraculous comeback against Washington. Across the NFL, Week 11 saw many contenders struggle to push aside lesser teams.
And then there was Philadelphia.
In what was billed two weeks ago as a titanic showdown for the soul of the NFC East, the untouchable Eagles swept aside the suddenly hapless Dallas Cowboys, 37-9 (gamebook). This even though the Cowboys made things as tough for Philadelphia as imaginable for the game’s first 30 minutes. That first half featured 18:29 of ball control by the Dallas offense, and the Dallas defense stopping the Eagle offense on all six of their third-down opportunities. Coming into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked running attack, Philadelphia went into the locker room with just 35 rushing yards. None of their 10 runs had gained more than 7 yards. In addition, quarterback sensation Carson Wentz finished the first half just 7 of 18 for 80 yards.
For all of this, Dallas went into the half leading just 9-7. As it turns out, they never would make it into the end zone.
But in the dominant second half that would see Philadelphia outgain Dallas 268-99 and outscore them 30-0, the heroes went well beyond Wentz. Carson made his contributions with 2 touchdown passes, but threw only 9 times in the second half. If the point hadn’t been sufficiently made before, this game demonstrated how much more the Eagles are than just a star quarterback.
In fact, the more you watch the Eagles play, the harder and harder it is to ignore the outstanding work of both the Philadelphia offensive and defensive lines.
The Lost Art of Pulling
A generation ago, the Miami Dolphins stitched together the only un-defeated un-tied season in the Super Bowl era. In 14 regular season games, they threw the ball only 259 times. An average team playing in 2017 would hit that mark at about halftime of their eighth game of the season. Those Dolphins ran the ball 613 time in 14 games – an average of 43.8 rushing attempts per game. They never ran for fewer than 120 yards in any of their games, rushed for at least 200 yards 8 times in the regular season and almost two more times in the playoffs (they reached 198 against Cleveland and 193 against Pittsburgh), and topped 300 yards once (in Week 12 they amassed 304 rushing yards against New England). They averaged 211.4 rushing yards a game.
The offensive line that powered this running game consisted of Wayne Moore (265 pounds), Bob Kuechenberg (253 pounds), Jim Langer (250 pounds), Larry Little (265 pounds) and Norm Evans (250 pounds). The life of an offensive lineman back in 1972 was much different than it is today. Back then, zone blocking didn’t exist. A 300 pound offensive lineman would have been considered a liability. Back then, offensive linemen moved all of the time. Guards were nearly always pulling – it was the era of the great Lombardi sweep.
In 2017 most offensive linemen tilt the scales at over 300 pounds. Sunday’s Eagle lineup featured Halapoulivaati Vaitai (315 pounds), Stefen Wisniewski (295), Jason Kelce (282), Brandon Brooks (343) and Lane Johnson (303). The lightest member of this year’s Eagle offensive line is roughly 17 pounds heavier than the heaviest member of the Dolphin line of yesteryear.
As it turns out, offensive linemen in 2017 mostly pass protect. They do still pull – or try to pull – but this relic of football’s offensive past is starting to fade for lack of effectiveness.
At 300-plus pounds, few of the modern offensive linemen possess the quickness to get away from the line of scrimmage before being caught up in the congestion, and the speed to make it to the designated spot while the play is still going on. There is another key component necessary to allowing one of your linemen to pull successfully that is also mostly lacking – the art of the downblock.
Frequently, as a guard takes his place at the line of scrimmage, there is a defensive tackle lining up across from him. If this guard is supposed to pull on this particular play, that would render him unable to block the tackle – allowing him to disrupt the play. To compensate, another near-by lineman – in this case, usually the center – would slide over at the snap and block the tackle.
This agility and athleticism was the trademark of those Dolphins and many other teams of that era. Today – since defensive linemen are getting smaller and much quicker – it is difficult for offensive linemen to cut them off before they can penetrate. Much of the time these days, when linemen pull, it ends up as a scrum in the offensive backfield.
But Not the Eagles
All of which makes watching the Philadelphia Eagles such a singular experience. These Eagles pull like no team I’ve witnessed in many years. There were probably more cleanly executed pulls, traps and downblocks executed in Sunday’s game than most teams will manage in a season.
While there may well have been a dozen or so perfectly executed run plays, perhaps the best came on the second play of the fourth quarter. The Eagles faced first-and-10 on their own 48, and lined up with tight end Zach Ertz tight to the right side. At the snap, left guard Wisniewski bolted around center, heading toward the right side of the formation, while center Kelce executed his perfect downblock on Cowboy nose tackle Maliek Collins. Meanwhile, the right guard and tackle (Brooks and Johnson) double-teamed Dallas’ other tackle – David Irving, and Ertz flew past end Demarcus Lawrence.
After the initial double-team staggered Irving, both Brooks and Johnson quickly disengaged and hurtled into the defensive secondary, where they effortlessly cleared out linebackers Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant. As to Lawrence – who was unblocked to this point – he had to hesitate to see whether Wentz was going to keep the ball and roll to his side. This caused him to pause just long enough to allow Wisniewski to plow through him. Ertz hunted up cornerback Byron Jones and drove him up the field.
By the time running back LeGarrette Blount reached the line of scrimmage, the entire Dallas defense had been picked off and pushed out of the way – exactly as it had been drawn up. Blount would finally be caught from behind on the Cowboy 22 – after a 30 yards gain.
On that play, left tackle Vaitai had the easiest assignment – turning Cowboy end Taco Charlton to the outside. But on this evening every Eagle lineman would have their moment – even Vaitai who is filling in for injured legend Jason Peters. On Philadelphia’s longest offensive play of the game – Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run – it would be Vaitai, pulling from left tackle – who would throw the key block.
Ghosts of Cowboys Past
The entire second half would be eerily reminiscent of the Cowboy teams of the mid-1990s that would pound teams into submission in the second half of their games. Philadelphia ran the ball 23 times in the second half for 180 yards – sending them to 215 rushing yards on the game.
A total even the 1972 Dolphins wouldn’t have been embarrassed to own.
And Then There Was the Defensive Line
Almost as dominant was the Eagle defensive line. They kept the pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott the entire night, while rarely letting him escape the pocket. Watching the game, it seemed like the Eagles blitzed constantly. In reality, Prescott saw only 10 blitzes in his 35 drop-backs (29%). But those blitzes were effective enough. Dak was only 3 for 8 for 19 yards, 2 sacks, and 1 interception when facing the Eagle blitz.
The rest of the time Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long constricted the pocket. Right defensive end Derek Barnett had the opportunity to exploit Dallas’ weakness at left tackle. With starting tackle Tyron Smith missing his second straight game, Dallas turned to Byron Bell. While his effort was decidedly better than Chaz Green’s the game before, the Cowboys still struggled all night trying to keep Barnett out of the backfield.
The pressure from Barnett, the blitzes and the false blitzes all took their toll on Prescott. Dak played fast most of the night, and his accuracy suffered noticeably. What a change for Dak from last year.
Last year at this time, Prescott was playing easy behind what was then regarded as football’s best offensive line. But left guard Ronald Leary is in Denver now, and right tackle Doug Free retired. With Smith sitting out with his injury, the Cowboys are down to just two of last year’s five starting offensive linemen.
And it makes quite a difference.
Last year, Dallas streaked to a 13-3 record and the top seed in their conference. This year they are unlikely to make the playoffs. That’s how quickly life can change in the NFL. The Eagles and the other teams currently riding on top of the football world should take notice.