Ford: Vaitai, making gains, readies for Cowboys

Vikings Eagles Football
Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai (72) in action prior to the NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Eagles won 21-10. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Big V knows all about Big D, even though AT&T Stadium, home of the Cowboys, is 20 miles west of Dallas, and even though Halapoulivaati Vaitai is more of a Fort Worth guy himself, having grown up in nearby Haltom, Texas.

Sunday night will mark the third time Vaitai has played in the monstrous rhinestone that Jerry Jones nestled onto the Arlington prairie, just between the Wal-Mart Supercenter and the Jack in the Box. He played a high school game there, and one more when he was with Texas Christian. He knows what to expect.

"It will be loud," Vaitai said.

Oh, yes. Louder than it was during his first game at right tackle, a pretty disappointing day against the Redskins, and louder than it was last Sunday at the Linc, when things went much better for Vaitai and the Eagles against the Vikings. Probably louder than it was for high school, too.

"I have friends who are Cowboys fans. When I was drafted, they all said, 'Oh, that's going to be a fun game,' " Vaitai said. "But I don't care about them."

Right now, Vaitai cares only about parlaying his apparent improvement into something lasting. When he got the job to replace suspended Lane Johnson, it was an opportunity from coach Doug Pederson, not a promise. That bargain hung by a thread after the Washington game, but he spun it into a slightly sturdier rope against Minnesota.

"I didn't have my best day in Washington, but you have to move on and come back to work," said Vaitai, a rookie taken in the fifth round of the draft. "I know what to expect now."

Vaitai's baptism was a cold plunge against Ryan Kerrigan of the Redskins, as he allowed the defensive end to get 21/2 sacks and hit Carson Wentz another five times. Pederson gave Vaitai as much help as possible in pass protection, using tight ends and running backs to chip Kerrigan, but it was just a bad day.

"Playing against Kerrigan, that was quite a beginning for him," center Jason Kelce said. "Mentally, he's better, as he calms down and stops overthinking things. He was killing himself, and that's a habit most rookies have. He'll be better."

The Minnesota game was an obvious improvement, even though he still got blocking help. Vaitai said he worked on not taking too wide a drop before setting himself, which opens a lane to the inside, and on keeping his hands low and his hips down.

"It was all stuff you can fix. Your first game, you think, 'Yeah, I'm ready,' and then you get out there and start thinking a lot," Vaitai said. "Second game, I started calming down, focus on the little things, start to get comfortable."

The coaching staff still has alternatives if the experiment goes south. One scenario would involve moving Allen Barbre to right tackle and inserting Stefen Wisniewski at left guard, and another would have Matt Tobin replace Vaitai at tackle. The uptick against the Vikings has bought the rookie a little more time, however.

"I think it's a little bit settling down, a little bit playing at home, a little bit playing with the lead," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Thursday. "He's gaining confidence and getting coached up to learn from the mistakes he made and attacking and playing aggressive."

It might be a more difficult job staying settled and confident in AT&T Stadium, where the Eagles will have to use a silent count that can be difficult for tackles. It might be a lot more unsettling if DeMarcus Lawrence, the Dallas defensive end who was suspended for the first four games of the season, is finally ready to reclaim his spot on the line, which happens to be directly opposite Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Lawrence has been given an increased number of snaps the last two games and, coming off a bye, appears to have shaken a shoulder twinge he suffered against Green Bay. He had eight sacks in 13 starts last season and has been waiting for this moment.

"I have to get to my spot quick, and have to beat him to the punch before he gets going," Vaitai said. "They're pretty much rush-up-the-field guys. All they really do is try to pressure the quarterback."

With the Cowboys outscoring opponents by 98-46 in the first half of their games this season, the defense has had ample opportunity to assume the pass and look for sacks. Dallas is actually ranked better against the run, but that's only because the Cowboys have defended the fewest rushes in the league (127). The Eagles would love to change that trend, but nothing about their own running game would indicate that's going to happen. No, this is probably going to be another game in which pass protection is the most important job for the offensive line.

Big V says he expects to be ready for Big D. He'll be close to home - although getting a meal prepared by his mother isn't going to happen - and he'll be playing in a stadium that, while imposing, isn't unfamiliar. He was there for that Texas 5A playoff game with Haltom, and the time TCU opened its season there against LSU. It would take a cold person to point out that Vaitai is still looking for his first win in the building, however.

"Jason Peters just tells me to not beat myself up and go out and do my job," Vaitai said. "He says it's simple. Yeah, simple for him."

It got easier in the last game for Vaitai. Now, it's time to see if that was a trend or just a pause in the traffic that looks to speed past him in search of the quarterback.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports