Vaitai Has Been Important for Eagles
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - By definition Eagles swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai is good enough to win a Super Bowl with.
By definition, the big TCU product is also not quite good enough to block Jadeveon Clowney, the freakishly talented Houston edge rusher who nearly drove his helmet through Nick Foles' midsection before the popular Eagles quarterback played Lazurus and led Philadelphia to a 32-30 comeback win over the Texans which kept hope alive for Week 17.
Vaitai wasn't at fault when Clowney got loose late last Sunday but he certainly had his issues with the former No. 1 overall pick.
"I thought there were some highs and lows with Big V," Eagles coach Doug Pederson admitted when talking about Vaitai's performance against the Texans. "He had a tough task. We know Clowney is a tremendous football player and he's very active, and we knew that going in. Big V has been one of the kind of anchors for that offensive line with all the different moving parts that we've had all season, and whether he's playing left or right tackle, to come in that early in that football game, it's a credit to him, again. But there were some -- I think as the game went on, though, he did settle down and played a little bit better as the game went on."
As Pederson noted Vaitai has been forced into action in a number of games this season as the 36-year-old Jason Peters has struggled with quad and biceps issues, first in Week 2 against Tampa Bay, and also at the New York Giants and most recently against the Texans. He also got a heavy workload on the other side when Lane Johnson was dealing with knee and ankle issues against Jacksonville and Dallas with the Cowboys game the only one in the bunch where Vaitai knew he would start and actually prepared for it during the week.
Of the 84 OTs who have played enough to be graded by ProFootballFocus.com this season Vaitai is near the bottom at No. 79 so what's typically a strength for the Philadelphia offense -- Johnson is No. 16 and Peters is at 43 -- turns into a negative when Vaitai is in the lineup.
It's a tough existence for a player to come in off the bench cold to try to hold off pass rushers like Clowney but that's Vaitai's job description right now and one that might continue in the Week 17 finale against Washington considering Peters has been limited so far this week, estimated as out for Wednesday's walkthrough and limited for Thursday's on-field practice.
Pederson, though, has been practicing load management with a number of banged-up veteran players in order to get them to the finish line, notable defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who has been dealing with a foot injury.
Earlier in the week, Pederson said he "still would expect [Peters] to be in the lineup Sunday."
Either way it's evident that Vaitai will have to be on his toes even if Peters is cleared to go and offensive coordinator Mike Groh admitted it's more difficult to be forced into action on game day, versus preparing like you're the starter during the week although Vaitai has obviously seen the first-team reps at LT with Peters down.
"I guess I would say this: it is difficult, but everybody needs to be prepared to play," Groh conceeded. "So V, to his credit, is prepared whenever his number is called because he never knows exactly when that time might come. He was able to go in there and play well enough to give us an opportunity to win, which against that guy is a tremendous task."
While Washington is a banged-up mess offensively the other side of the football remains the strength of the team, especially the front which includes noted Eagles-killer Ryan Kerrigan and the talented Preston Smith on the edges.
The Eagles, of course, must win the game and hope for help from Chicago, which plays at Minnesota, to make the postseason.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen