Athleticism among offensive linemen is one of the most overvalued traits in the NFL. Look at any list of draft busts, and it’s sure to include the names of many physically gifted but technically deficient players. Meanwhile, plenty of linemen with awful testing numbers have emerged as reliable options. Saints tackle Zach Strief, for example, has been a starter for years. He ran a plodding 5.38-second 40-yard dash at the 2006 combine, and his vertical jump of 21 inches ranks in the second percentile for his position. At the spots up front, athleticism is solely a measure of upside. Guys without refined tools will fail, and those who can play and move turn into premium players.
That latter combination explains how the Eagles have built the NFL’s top offensive line. No group is more mobile, and that nimbleness represents Philadelphia’s most significant advantage over the Patriots in Sunday’s Super Bowl. The team’s three-headed backfield of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement is likely to get plenty of work against a porous New England run defense, and the way that the Eagles’ line pulls, twists, and moves should open up holes for those backs all day.
When nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters tore both his right ACL and MCL in a 34-24 win over Washington in Week 7, the Philadelphia line lost an integral piece for the season. Yet it was still left with three stars in the unit. The most athletic member of that trio is right tackle Lane Johnson, the Oklahoma product whom Philly drafted fourth overall in 2013. A former junior college quarterback and tight end, Johnson boasts a physical profile rarely seen for an offensive lineman. At 6-foot-6 and 303 pounds, he ran a 4.72 in the 40-yard dash at the combine (99th percentile), registered a 34-inch vertical leap (96th percentile), and ripped off a ridiculous 118-inch broad jump (99th percentile). There’s an argument to be made that Johnson is the most athletic offensive line prospect this century.
Not far behind him is center Jason Kelce, whom the Eagles snagged in the sixth round (no. 191 overall) of the draft two years earlier. In the 18 years of predraft workout data available on Mockdraftable.com, Kelce has the best 20-yard shuttle time (4.14 seconds) and the second-best three-cone drill time (7.22 seconds). Right guard Brandon Brooks is the only healthy star along the Eagles line who wasn’t drafted by the franchise, but Philly’s front office gave him a five-year, $40 million contract in 2016 largely because his athletic ability aligned with that of Kelce, Johnson, and Peters. At 346 pounds, Brooks clocked a 4.98-second 40-yard dash time (93rd percentile) and a 1.71-second 10-yard split (90th percentile). That shouldn’t even be possible for a man of his size. “For such a big man, he just moves so well,” former nine-year NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz says of Brooks. “He’s so good in space.”
The trio’s fluidity has informed how the Eagles’ staff has constructed the team’s running game. Most offenses rely on a particular blocking scheme in their ground attack. Based on personnel, they’ll either lean heavily on run-blocking schemes that get the most from smaller, quicker linemen or deploy power, gap concepts that allow heavier linemen to play downhill. With the group the Eagles have up front, they don’t have to choose. They use a slew of different designs, many of which are aimed at utilizing the mobility of Johnson, Brooks, and Kelce. “[They have] hit home runs on like five different schemes this year,” Schwartz says. “They’ve hit home runs on wham plays, on power plays, on trap plays, on zone plays. They’re just so [varied].”
How Philly deploys Kelce is probably the biggest departure from other offenses around the league. Most teams are reluctant to pull their center, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to interior defensive linemen creating penetration up the middle. Yet the Eagles actively seek out chances to get Kelce on the move with the goal of blocking defenders on the second level. One of their favorite designs involves Kelce pulling around a guard with a pin-and-pull concept while running inside zone. On most inside-zone runs, a team’s guard and center initially double-team a defensive tackle before the guard works up to the linebacker. Philly cuts out the middleman. Instead of using a double-team, the guard blocks down on the defensive tackle and Kelce loops around to take care of the linebacker.
This approach guarantees that the Eagles get a lineman to the second level, something they do more efficiently than any other offense in football. Head coach Doug Pederson and his staff consistently devise plays that allow at least one Philly lineman to release to a linebacker without even having to worry about blocking the defender in front of him. Kelce is often able to work toward the inside linebacker immediately because the angles created for Brooks and left guard Stefen Wisniewski are advantageous enough that they don’t need any help. By not wasting time moving to the second level, Kelce can clear out linebackers who otherwise might have a free shot at a running back. Instead of having to make defenders miss in the hole, Eagles’ backs are asked only to find slivers of daylight between all of the occupied defenders.
It’s all made possible because the Eagles can bring Johnson all the way across a formation to clear out a linebacker he should have no business blocking on a quick-developing inside run. Take this play from the first quarter of the Eagles’ 37-9 win over the Cowboys in Week 11. Given the angle on his down block, Wisniewski requires no help from Kelce on the nose tackle, allowing the center to instantly engage backside linebacker Anthony Hitchens. That leaves Dallas playside linebacker Justin Durant unblocked in the exact spot that Ajayi is supposed to attack. From nearly 5 yards over, Johnson tears down the line of scrimmage to meet Durant in the hole. The lateral quickness and burst shown here just aren’t normal for a 305-pound tackle. All that’s left for Ajayi to do is navigate to the open grass and finish off a 6-yard gain.
The below play from the same Eagles’ victory over the Cowboys is another telling example of what distinguishes the Philly line—and why its athletic advantage might show up even more than usual against the Patriots. In this scenario, the Eagles use an unbalanced line with left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai set up next to Johnson on the right side. At the snap, all the moving pieces work in tandem to create a symphony of destruction. Thanks in part to having a terrific angle on the down block, Johnson easily handles Dallas defensive tackle Maliek Collins. A wave of the hand is all that Kelce does to acknowledge nose tackle David Irving before climbing to take the backside linebacker. And all 340 or so pounds of Brooks loops around and makes his way to Durant. With the two linebackers occupied, Ajayi is able to cut right off Brooks’s butt for an 8-yard gain.
How Durant and Hitchens initially responded to all of Philly’s movement provides a window into why New England’s defense might struggle with the Eagles running game. With star Dont’a Hightower done for the season after suffering a pectoral injury in October, the Patriots have been forced to rely on Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy at inside linebacker. Both are athletically limited compared to most counterparts at the position leaguewide. That’s a problem against many offenses; when facing the Eagles’ absurdly athletic line, it’s a recipe for potential disaster.
At 235 pounds, Roberts ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash leading up to the 2016 draft. He’s a downhill player who struggles to work from sideline to sideline. It’s hard to imagine a more significant mismatch for Kelce and Brooks, but Van Noy comes close. Initially drafted as an edge rusher in the Lions’ 3-4 scheme, Van Noy lacks both the speed and recognition skills of a high-end inside linebacker. His 1.61-second 10-yard split time is nearly identical to Johnson’s, and their 40 times are dead even (4.71 for Van Noy compared to 4.72 for Johnson). Although Johnson outweighs Van Noy by more than 60 pounds, his athletic profile is virtually the same.
The athletic mismatch between these two position groups should show up regularly on Sunday. Plenty of Philadelphia’s schemes rely on side-to-side movement from both the line and the backs, and if Roberts and Van Noy struggle to keep pace, Eagles ballcarriers should find plenty of wide-open running lanes to the second level. Most huge runs in the NFL involve at least one missed tackle or a back roasting an unblocked defender in the hole. Ajayi, Clement, and Blount might not need either to rip off chunks of yardage against New England. By virtue of having a line that’s ludicrously athletic and technically proficient, Philly consistently allows its backs to go untouched for the first 5 yards.
Combine performances from four years ago don’t win football games, but the testing numbers offer a glimpse at the edge in athleticism that Philly will have over the Pats when the Eagles have the ball. Kelce, Brooks, and Johnson tend to look fast against any linebacking corps; against the Pats, they have a chance to appear as if they’re playing with the tape sped up. Backup quarterback Nick Foles facing off against Tom Brady may be the biggest story line this week, but Philly’s ability to churn out yardage on the ground and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands could be its best opportunity to shock the world.