Lane Johnson is a work in progress, but the steps forward are coming at a faster pace for the rookie tackle.
After allowing seven sacks and 29 hurries in the Eagles' first eight games, per Pro Football Focus, Johnson has given up just two sacks and two hurries in the last four. His run blocking has been consistent throughout the season, but he has made steady improvement in pass protection and his coach is noticing.
"I think every day out here you kind of see him improve," Chip Kelly said Wednesday. "I think Coach [Jeff] Stoutland and Greg Austin have done a great job on him with just the intricacies -- his sets, set lines, his angles of departure from the line of scrimmage, little teeny things, where his hand placement is, is he too far outside of his hand placement, is he getting his hands back outside.
"It’s in the details."
Johnson still has moments when he gets beat or misses a block, but even the best offensive linemen in the NFL have struggles playing a position where mistakes are often magnified. He's still learning the position having only played on the line for two previous seasons in college, but he doesn't look as lost as he did in September.
"He knows exactly what he’s supposed to do and who he’s supposed to block," Kelly said. "But now working the intricacies that come along with just experience is what you’re seeing from him. It’s fun to see him progress each week."
Here's a closer look at some of those details, especially related to how Johnson has utilized both the vertical set and the jump set in pass protection:
Johnson saw a combination of Cardinals pass rushers on Sunday, sometimes facing off against five-technique defensive ends. For the sake of this post, though, I'm going to focus on how he fared against outside linebackers John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy. Here he was lined up opposite Shaughnessy in the first quarter:
Johnson used the vertical set. I could write 1,000 words about the vertical set, but the premise is simple: Walk backward as fast you can. There are many reasons why so many offensive line coaches prefer the vertical set, but mostly it gives linemen space to react to a defensive player's moves. It naturally slows the defensive player because he's lost some of his power after the initial burst off the line.
Former Eagles o-line coach Howard Mudd didn't like the vertical set. He thought it weakened a lineman's anchor because he was more upright and made him susceptible to bull rushes (which it does). But it also allows a lineman to get square and have his hands ready.
Some coaches teach that the first step back should be with the inside (post) foot. Johnson uses his outside (set) foot, though:
Look at how square Johnson was with Shaughnessy, an average pass rusher, but a potentially dangerous one playing alongside some of the best pass rushers in the NFL. (He later notched a sack when Nick Foles appeared to have held the ball too long.) The protection, overall, was great on this play and Foles had more than enough time to hit tight end Zach Ertz for 22 yards.
A quarter later, Abraham switched sides away from left tackle Jason Peters:
The vertical set is also popular because it allows for a little more time to react to stunts and twists like the Cardinals ran inside here:
Johnson jumped back in time to slow Abraham, a former 4-3 defensive end with the Falcons. But the wily veteran was able to use his hands to swim past Johnson.
"When you’re vertical setting you have to have good feet, but your hands are very important," center Jason Kelce said. "You have to know when to strike, when to hold back because he’s going to try and clean your hands.”
Abraham forced Foles out of the pocket, but the quarterback completed an 8-yard pass to Riley Cooper:
Johnson would have his revenge. “I tried to mix it up, not just setting vertical all the time," he said. "I tried to get aggressive with [Abraham] and get my hands on him quick."
Stoutland, unlike Mudd, wants his linemen to mix up their technique so a defensive lineman doesn't get used to one method of blocking. Johnson used the jump set -- an aggressive move that Mudd preferred -- on this third quarter play:
Kelce said that if you're going to use the jump set you have to communicate it because "you got to be on the same page as the guy next to you." So if Johnson used the jump set and right guard Todd Herremans used the vertical set, there could be a lane for a linemen to run through.
Peters, a tackle of many traits, thrived with Mudd's jump set in 2011.
"Obviously, Jason was able to learn the jump step under Howard," Kelce said. "But Stout does a good job of allowing guys to be able to utilize both."
In the jump set, Johnson's first step is with his outside foot, but he's actually doing more of a hop, hence the "jump" set:
"When you jump set you have to have really good feet because the hands are going to be a little off and you don’t know how you’re going to catch him," Kelce said. Johnson's feet were perfect as he pursued Abraham. He ran the linebacker upfield and Foles stepped up in the pocket before throwing to Ertz for a 24-yard touchdown:
Johnson's athleticism allows Kelly to use him in unorthodox ways. We've seen Johnson split wide, but on Sunday he was lined up in the slot for the first time this season.
“It’s just a different look, just mixing it up and giving defenses something else to work on and think about,” Johnson said.
Foles handed off to LeSean McCoy, who picked up 12 yards up the middle, but he may have missed a bigger play. DeSean Jackson was the bubble screen option in the package play and the Cardinals had the wrong defense when the linebacker slid over to pick up the receiver after he went in motion.
With three blockers and a safety deep, Jackson may have taken the pass to the house:
Johnson is not an eligible receiver, although he could report as one. Kelly was asked if he would ever make him eligible and he gave a wry "Sure," but Johnson said "it’s not something me and the coaches have talked about.”
Kelly went back to the formation in the fourth quarter when the Eagles had trouble getting anything going:
But the Cardinals had the right defense and the cornerback followed Cooper. Johnson can block linebackers in space, but defensive backs are another story.
"It’s like me chasing a chicken out there with all those little fast guys," he said.
The corner read the screen and Foles decided against throwing outside. McCoy was already gone and Foles was eventually sacked:
Even though the play wasn't successful, Johnson said that he enjoys being used outside. Peters has lined up wide, too, but nowhere near as often as the rookie.
“I guess it's because I’m the youngest guy," Johnson said. "They let me do all the running around.”