Eagles a fitter team in the trenches

Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan (left) celebrates a sack with teammate Connor Barwin against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As much as the start of the season has unfolded like a well-worn fairy tale for the Eagles, a story that should include dragons and wands and a lanky young prince, there is absolutely nothing magical about what is happening along the line of scrimmage.

Both the offensive and defensive lines have been dominating opponents, particularly after halftime. It is leg-grinding, back-bending work and the Eagles have been getting the best of it. There is some irony there. After getting rid of a coach who preached conditioning and wearing out the other guy, but succeeded only in wrecking his own team, the Eagles have a new coach who worked the players hard in training camp and that philosophy has been rewarded so far.

The Eagles lead the league in time of possession at 36 minutes, 47 seconds per game, and they have done it by giving Carson Wentz time to pick apart defenses with his precision short- and medium-range passes, and, on the other side of the ball, by shutting down opposing running games and then getting pressure in passing situations. Every NFL game is a physical battle, and the Eagles are undefeated in those as well. It's not a coincidence.

"Being physical in camp, making camp as hard as I can . . . I just think it builds a mind-set," Doug Pederson said Monday. "I felt our guys took control offensively and defensively up front. The D-line and the O-line was able to control the game that way."

Where their domination is most apparent - and where the true test of conditioning is found - is in the second halves of the three games. Even though they have held leads, they are averaging more than 19 minutes of possession after halftime. They have outscored the opposition 57-10 in the second half, including 43-3 in the third quarter.

The starting defensive line is probably the most talented single unit on the team, so maybe the success there isn't any surprise. But what has allowed the line to flourish in the start of the season is defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's willingness to keep everyone fresh by trusting heavily in the backups.


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Pittsburgh took 65 offensive snaps on Sunday. There are a lot of defensive coordinators who, given a Fletcher Cox at their disposal, would keep the man on the field. Schwartz used him for 41 snaps and nine defensive linemen got into the game, including a few snaps for Stephen Means near the end. Sizable chunks of playing time went to Marcus Smith, Beau Allen, and Destiny Vaeao, and no one had to take more than the 47 snaps given to Connor Barwin.

It's great if it works, and it has worked so far in getting the defense off the field. Additionally, the defense stays fresh because the offense remains out there. The Eagles are averaging 6.3 plays per drive this season, a significant improvement over Chip Kelly in two regards: more plays and more time between plays. (The 49ers are averaging 4.7 plays per drive and are 29th in the league in time of possession. Big surprise.)

The remarkable side of things has really been the offensive line. Those guys don't get to take plays off and there were plenty of question marks when the season began.

"I can't say enough about the offensive line and how it played tonight," coordinator Frank Reich said after the Steelers game. "We knew we were going up against a team that was good up front. The run game didn't look good early, but the O-line had said all week, 'We can run the ball on these guys,' and we kept pounding and stuck with the script. We stayed patient."

They ran for 32 yards in the first half and 93 in the second half. A lot of that is because they had the lead and stopped throwing the ball, but a lot of it is because the runs were successful, too. This season, the Eagles haven't trailed by more than four points and have only been behind for a total of 11 minutes. That has allowed Pederson to call balanced games (96 runs, 106 passes called) and keep opposing defenses honest. The offensive line isn't being constantly beaten up by pass rushes and blitzes.

"We keep getting better and hopefully we will be able to keep building on this and keep improving," center Jason Kelce said.

That brings us to the dragon portion of the tale, and the real possibility that the young prince will have to fight some battles without the same help soon. If right tackle Lane Johnson begins to serve his 10-game suspension, as is expected, the offensive line will be changed in two spots as left guard Allen Barbre moves to tackle and someone else, probably Stefen Wisniewski, takes his place.

How the dominoes fall from those alterations will have a big say in how the next 10 games of the regular season go for the Eagles. They could set off a chain reaction in which Wentz doesn't get the same protection, the time of possession erodes and the defense finds itself on the field a lot longer. None of that would be good.

Blocking and fighting off blocks isn't magic. They are the most basic elements in football. Pederson took the Eagles back to those basics as they prepared for the season. The lines are why the team is undefeated, fairy tales aside. They will also probably be the reason if and when that changes.