Eagles Bye Week Breakdown: The Offensive Line
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - When people call football the ultimate team game, they generally aren't talking about failure but in the case of the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive struggles this season, it's certainly been a true team effort.
Everyone has contributed to the malaise from the disappointing quarterback play to the predictable scheme, the square peg running back, and the mediocre receivers. The offensive line, however, got most of the vitriol from the fan base, especially early in the campaign because the talk-radio fuel was that new starting guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner just couldn't replace the old stalwarts, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans.
To be fair that's partially true because Barbre was awful early and a significant downgrade from the Mathis, who Chip Kelly jettisoned after the veteran complained one two many times about money. Herremans, however, was a rapidly descending player who had little left as evidenced by the fact he has already been benched in Indianapolis. And Gardner was actually giving the Eagles more than Herremans was last season before going down to a season-ending foot injury.
The bigger issue than Gardner early on was the poor play of former Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce, who was either being bullied by bigger and stronger nose tackles, often being put on skates and driven into the backfield, or being used as a key to sniff out the running game. When Kelce pulled, smart linebackers would penetrate the gap underneath. Those issues resulted in numerous tackles for losses and Philadelphia playing behind the sticks far too often.
Left tackle Jason Peters also got off to a slow start, at least with for him, making right tackle Lane Johnson the only Eagles offensive lineman besides Gardner to play at the level expected of him.
The slow start, though, is now in the rear-view error and over the last month this group has been Philadelphia's best offensive unit.
The line got a big scare when Peters, who was starting to round into his typical All-Pro form, went down with a back injury against Carolina but all indications are that he will be back after the bye.
Top backup Matt Tobin slid in at right guard in place of Gardner and then had to kick out to left tackle when Peters went down. He's a nondescript player although obviously better inside and the versatility is nice. Dennis Kelly looked lost at right guard against the Panthers while Josh Andrews and the recently signed Tanner Hawksinson remain the deep reserves.
Peters remains the team's best lineman but Johnson has been the most consistent and he's shown his toughness but gutting it out through a knee sprain. Overall, Johnson has taken the expected big step forward this season and is now one of the better right tackles in the NFC. The long-term plan of flipping him to the left side as the heir apparent to Peters is still in play because Lane has the athleticism to handle it.
Better Days to Come: Gardner
Gardner's not Zack Martin but he was the Eagles best run blocker before he went down and Kelly raved about his football IQ and consistency. The ceiling may not be ultra-high with a player like Gardner but he was well on his way to solidifying the right guard spot and there is no reason to think that will not occur once he's back next season.
It's just not going to happen: Barbre
Barbre has played better football in recent weeks but he's still a below average starter at this level and he and Kelce were the main culprits when the opposition was blowing up things again and again in the Eagles backfield. Philadelphia will certainly look to upgrade at left guard in the offseason and it shouldn't be all that difficult to do so.
Biggest Disappointment: Kelce
Kelce has rebounded from his awful start and has played solid football at times over the past few weeks but he's been nowhere near a Pro Bowl-type player so far this season. Perhaps, the NFL's quickest and most athletic center Kelce paid a price to get there and he can be pushed around rather easily by bulky tackles playing zero technique. In fact if you know the opposition has a top-tier nose tackle, you can almost guarantee the Philadelphia running game is going to be in trouble.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973ESPN.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen