Les Bowen: Mudd coaching Eagles' o-line to think small
That's how Howard Mudd sees his offensive line pulling itself back together in the wake of the disastrous Detroit loss Oct. 14. When his o-linemen returned from the bye to start preparing for the 6-0 Atlanta Falcons this weekend, Mudd's message was to focus not on how out of sync the group has been at times, or on the larger issue of how a line missing Jason Peters and Jason Kelce is going to fare against the Falcons' deceptive, shifting front. It was to think small.
"Take the simplest thing that you do, and perfect it, don't think about the gross things, think about the small things," Mudd said Thursday, when the Eagles' offensive line coach was asked where he started, in regrouping and preparing for the Falcons. That task might have gotten a little tougher when starting right guard Danny Watkins missed practice Thursday with an ankle problem that coach Andy Reid said was an aggravation of a previous injury. Rookie Dennis Kelly took Watkins' reps, with Watkins watching. There was no word on whether Watkins is likely to play.
"The gross things will take care of themselves when you focus on the technique: 'What foot do I move first?' 'Where do I put my hands?' Let's go back and focus on those things, when you've had an outing like we did [against] Detroit," Mudd said. "I like staring at my problems, rather than running from them and saying, 'It's going to get better.' It isn't going to get better until you fix it . . . Maybe you're just losing focus, so let's get back to our focus on those little things that translate into a successful technique. I think it's all about technique: 'Where do you put your head?' 'How do you move your foot?' Let's start over, not from the beginning of training camp, like you hadn't had any [practice], but only focus on those things. Quit worrying about [the opponent], worry about you."
"Football is all about the little things," left guard Evan Mathis agreed.
Mudd said when o-linemen get beaten, they tend to start focusing on the guy beating them, rather than on their own mechanics.
"Who's running around in your brain? If he's running around in your brain, you got a problem. I think the way you get the other guy out of your head is to focus on your task," Mudd said.
Mudd said that in any sport, when an athlete gets out of sync, "they're generally focusing on the result, rather than focusing on the specific, small task, whatever it is . . . Find your little trigger, that triggers your mechanism."
In preparing for Atlanta, Mudd showed his team film of the Redskins, a team he thought used a good approach and did an effective job against the Falcons' front in a 24-17 loss, rather than show San Diego, which he thought did a poor job in both concept and execution, and lost, 27-3.
Not surprisingly, Mudd's view of his embattled line is more positive than that of many observers. Pro Football Focus this week ranked the Eagles' o-line 20th in the NFL, 28th in pass protection but fourth in run blocking. Mudd said he thought things were coming together reasonably well, until the Detroit game.
"We played poorly, very poorly in a couple places," against Detroit, Mudd said.
Has it been harder than anticipated to replace Peters, an All-Pro left tackle, and Kelce, a dynamic, second-year center who seemed born to run Mudd's scheme?
"It's kind of abnormal to lose two starters of that quality in one place, but gosh almighty, that happens," he said. "Just move on; we have to move on. Is it harder than I thought? Not really. I thought it was gonna be a lot of work that we had to do."
One thing observers wonder about is whether it is easier to whiff spectacularly in Mudd's aggressive blocking system, which requires linemen to step into their opponents, instead of stepping back in a protective stance. Mudd said he doesn't think that is the case.
"I think when you're in a bad place, you whiff. I don't care what system you're using," Mudd said.
Mathis, who came to the Eagles as a free agent in 2011 because he wanted to play in Mudd's system, said he doesn't think there's any extra risk. "Absolutely not," he said. "We're not lunging; if you lunge, you're going to get beat. Any football move, you're setting yourself up for [potential] failure. The aggression [Mudd teaches] isn't a lunge. The aggression is trying to hit that guy before he hits you."
With Demetress Bell going back to the bench this week in favor of King Dunlap at left tackle, the two most scrutinized Eagles o-linemen seem to be center Dallas Reynolds, who replaced Kelce after Kelce's season-ending knee injury in Week 2, and Watkins, the 2011 first-rounder who has had his ups and downs. Mudd strongly defended both players.
"Dallas has come along," Mudd said. He added that evaluating how the center is playing "can be illusory," that Reynolds has "done very well organizing us and putting us where we need to be, and probably [has had] less blocking problems than everybody wants to make it out to be. I'm not displeased with Dallas."
Observers wondered on draft day about the wisdom of using your first pick on a 26-year-old guard from Canada who never played football until he was 21. At the time, the Eagles rationalized Watkins' age by saying he should be ready to play quickly, but Mudd now says, "I think we understood there would be a larger learning curve."
"If there is a struggle, it's in understanding what the game is about," Mudd said of Watkins. "When A plus B equals C, in this sport, he may have to memorize A, and then go on. It isn't an intelligence thing, because he's very smart. [It's] an instinctual thing: 'What do I do next?' In the middle of a play."
Mudd's task would look a whole lot less daunting if Peters could come back from May Achilles' surgery, something Peters has said he intends to do this season. Mudd said he doesn't watch Peters working out on his own, doesn't ask the training staff for updates.
"That's hoping for something that I can't have, and that's a bad place for me to be," he said.
Contact Les Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LesBowen. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at eagletarian.com.