Hayes: Eagles' o-line coach a miracle worker

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Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland (left) speaks with rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai on the bench after the rookie gave up a sack of Carson Wentz in the game Oct. 16, 2016 in Washington. Washington won 27-20.

IN THE MOMENT, the job done so far by Doug Pederson's coaching staff has been, overall, remarkable.

The job done so far by offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has been incredible.

He lost his best player, right tackle Lane Johnson, after Game 4, to a 10-game PED suspension. Still, with a rookie quarterback and a rookie replacement at right tackle, the Eagles rank 13th in scoring and 19th in yards per game.

Stoutland, in his fourth NFL season after coaching in college for 28 years, will be asked to work more magic the next two weeks. Johnson's understudy, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, sprained a knee Sunday at Seattle. Left guard Allen Barbre will move to right tackle. Versatile veteran backup Stefan Wisniewski will play left guard.

This reconfigured line will be tasked with leading the team in two crucial, winnable games, first playing host to Green Bay on Monday night, then visiting Cincinnati. With games against Washington, at Baltimore, then home rematches against the Giants and Cowboys, a loss to either the Packers or the Bengals likely would end the Eagles' chances at postseason play.

Really, so far, it's been pretty good. In this situation - a new staff with new offensive and defensive schemes - much of the credit has to go the coaches.

Pederson was given a remade roster with a rookie quarterback. Still, Pederson has won half of the team's 10 games. The five losses have come on the road; all five, to teams 6-4 or better; and three, to division leaders; and three to division opponents. Only once have the Eagles been overmatched, and that was Sunday, in Seattle, the NFL's toughest place to play since 2012. Pederson, a rookie himself, has leaned heavily on his rich assortment of assistants. They have achieved to differing levels.

On one end of the scale sits defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who, despite deficiencies in the defensive backfield, has created a defense that accentuates its abilities. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich gets the most credit for Carson Wentz. Special-teams coach Dave Fipp has done a swell job again. On the other end there is Duce Staley, who, once LeSean McCoy left town, hasn't gotten much out of the running backs; and receivers coach Greg Lewis, who coaches Nelson Agholor, after a fashion.

At the head of the class: Jeff Stoutland.

Pederson retained a handful of coaches from Chip Kelly's staff: Fipp, Staley, tight ends coach Justin Peelle, defensive backs coach Cory Undlin. None of the holdovers has done as much with as little as Stoutland, a gruff, bespectacled mini-rhinoceros who played linebacker in college and who still speaks with a faded, staccato New York accent more than three decades since he left.

Kelly snagged Stoutland from Alabama when Kelly landed in the NFL in 2013. The Crimson Tide had just won a national championship. Stoutland's line might have been the best in college football history. Hiring Stoutland was easily the best personnel decision Kelly ever made.

In Stoutland's first two seasons, journeyman guard Evan Mathis and sixth-round center Jason Kelce went to their first Pro Bowls. This season, Stoutland turned Vaitai, a fifth-round pick, from an afterthought in training camp (and a disaster in his first start in place of Johnson in Game 5) into a serviceable right tackle, which could save the Eagles enormous headaches and lots of money in the future. Stoutland rebuilt Kelce, who had a poor 2015, and salvaged Kelce's 2016 season. Stoutland made the insertion of free-agent right guard Brandon Brooks seamless into a line returning four starters. Stoutland nurses 34-year-old left tackle Jason Peters week-to-week, giving him limited practice duty.

Stoutland's thoroughness is best appreciated, though, when he has to replace players.

To that point, consider the play of reserve guard/center Wisniewski the past four weeks. He replaced left guard Barbre at Dallas when Barbre injured a hamstring in the first half, then started the next two games in place of Barbre. Wisniewski returned to his backup role at left guard . . . for a while. Peters left the Seattle game in the first quarter with a forearm injury, which moved Barbre to left tackle and placed Wisniewski at left guard until Peters returned in the second quarter. Then, in the fourth quarter, Vaitai left with a sprained knee. Barbre moved to right tackle and Wisniewski finished the game at left guard.

To review: The Eagles used three offensive-line configurations against the stingiest defense in the NFL. The second configuration, with Barbre at left tackle and Wisniewski at left guard, saw the Birds march 68 yards on 13 plays for their only touchdown before the game fell out of reach.

The third configuration, used in the fourth quarter, was part of a drive that stalled due to a penalty on a receiver. Barbre moved over to right tackle for Vaitai and Wisniewski played left guard again.

The alarming reality: Both configurations worked well. Barbre allowed blitzing linebacker Cliff Avril to clip Wentz's arm on a fourth-down throw, but otherwise the unit's production was, considering the circumstances, incredible.

Wentz was sacked just two times. Then again, the Eagles have allowed just 21 sacks all season, 11th fewest in the league. The Birds might not have a fierce offense, but don't blame the line.

Wentz's mechanics and accuracy have, predictably, become inconsistent, and his receivers drop passes with disturbing frequency. The lineman aren't throwing it or catching it. Also, the Eagles' 118.3 rushing yards per game and their 4.3 yards-per-carry average are better than most teams'.

This, mostly without Johnson; with Barbre missing 2 1/2 games; with Peters diminished and with Kelce inconsistent.

This, thanks in large part to Jeff Stoutland.


hayesm@phillynews.com

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