CLEVELAND – Myles Garrett was not what Halapoulivaati Vaitai needed Thursday night.
Vaitai was trying to recover from last week’s disaster at New England, in which he was repeatedly abused, most notably giving up a strip sack to Adrian Clayborn on which quarterback Nick Foles suffered a shoulder injury scare – though Foles turned out to be fine.
A few days later, after watching the film, Eagles coach Doug Pederson declared that the No. 72 on the field at Gillette Stadium “wasn’t Big V,” and Vaitai lamented that he wasn’t himself, never recovering after a shaky start.
What if he was, though?
Vaitai was dreadful again Thursday night against the Cleveland Browns. He wasn’t the only reason the Eagles’ first team offense couldn’t muster a point, in its longest outing of the preseason, but he was right up there. Granted, it was as tough an assignment as he is likely to face all season, the left tackle lined up against Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, well on his way to becoming a game-changing monster on the edge.
At one point in the first half, during an injury stoppage, Jason Peters ventured out on the field to talk to his understudy. Later in the half, when Vaitai left the game briefly with a minor injury, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland grabbed a minute with his overwhelmed pupil, Stoutland bending backward in an exaggerated stance, mimicking how he thought Vaitai was playing – too high, just like last week.
“I got my ass kicked. Myles is a great player,” Vaitai said. “I was out of control today. I just got beat today.”
Vaitai, a 2016 fifth-round pick from TCU, has good feet for a 6-foot-6, 320-pound man, and he is a powerful run blocker. But against a really strong, fast, talented pass-rusher such as Garrett, a tackle needs a strong punch, to halt momentum. This is not Vaitai’s best thing. He more or less stayed in front of Garrett much of the time, but Garrett, as linemen say, repeatedly put Vaitai on skates. Foles was continually under siege from the left side, Vaitai shoved into the quarterback’s lap.
In fairness, this was a problem for other members of the Eagles’ vaunted offensive line, as well. Cleveland has a fierce front that ought to get coach Hue Jackson a little better record than 2017’s 0-16 this year. But amid the wasteland that was the first-team offense Thursday, Vaitai was the guy who stood out, the sorest of thumbs.
“They gotta stop catching and start punching. Can’t get walked back to the QB,” former Eagles center Jamaal Jackson observed on Twitter. Jackson was one of 31 Eagles alumni invited to practice this week. Maybe they should have signed him.
“It’s not good,” current center Jason Kelce said. “The bottom line is, when the offensive line plays well – we’ve seen that Nick can get the job done if we give him an opportunity to feel comfortable, give him the opportunity to be able to sit back there and go through his progressions. When we do a good job of making him feel comfortable, he plays much better, and we open up lanes on the ground. It opens up the offense that much more. There’s no doubt, we have to clean up what we’re doing up front.
>> READ MORE: Photos from the Eagles’ 5-0 loss to the Browns
“This has been pretty embarrassing for an offense throughout the preseason. We’ve got to get this corrected. Now we’re looking at Atlanta, we’re on to Week 1 [since starters don’t play in the final preseason game]. We’ve got to get back down to what was allowing us to be successful last year.”
Vaitai started 13 games last season, including three in the playoffs, after Peters went down with a knee injury Oct. 23, and in just about all of those, Big V looked better than he looked last night. But that might have been game-planning, to some extent, the coaches giving Vaitai blocking help from a tight end or a running back.
Why does this matter, if Peters is healthy and is being penciled in to start that Sept. 6 opener against Atlanta? Well, Peters is 36. There aren’t any other 36-year-old starting offensive tackles in the NFL. Chances of Peters making in through the season unscathed are maybe less than 100 percent. And Vaitai, after helping keep Foles clean in the Super Bowl, was supposed to be someone the Eagles could depend upon, the first tackle off the bench. Maybe a long-term starter, if Peters ever hangs up his cleats.
That plan looks shaky.