ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jason Peters is with Halapoulivaati Vaitai everywhere but on the field during games. Peters stood only a few feet from his protégé Monday night, as Eagles players milled about on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center among hundreds of reporters, with thousands of fans watching from the seats at Super Bowl opening night.
“He played a good [NFC championship game] against [Minnesota’s Everson] Griffen, and we’re headed now into the Super Bowl, man. I’m going to be right there by his side,” Peters said, sweating profusely behind designer sunglasses.
After Nick Foles’ taking over for Carson Wentz at quarterback, Vaitai was the biggest example of an Eagle somehow filling impossibly big shoes. In some ways Vaitai’s fill-in role might be bigger, because Peters went down in the seventh game of the season, not the 13th.
As he prepares to take on the New England Patriots’ pass rush in Super Bowl LII, Vaitai can take confidence in having shut down a top defensive end in Griffen, in a performance teammates have said was Vaitai’s best in his two seasons as an Eagle.
“I think I’d have to agree,” Vaitai said Monday. “I’ve been getting more and more comfortable. I just need more repetition and experience.”
Vaitai agreed that when the season began, he did not envision being a starting left tackle in the Super Bowl.
“It’s crazy. It’s always been about the next man up, but it’s crazy to be in the Super Bowl and actually be the left tackle here. But I’ve got to give it all to Jason Peters,” Vaitai, 24, said. “Jason, he was with me this morning, just telling me, ‘You got this. Just set to your spot, like you did all season.’ ”
“At the top of his set, he was doing a lot of leaning early on, but now he got it fixed,” Peters said, when asked what Vaitai has improved upon the most, since taking over in the wake of Peters’ season-ending knee injury, suffered Oct. 23 against the Redskins. “I just kind of help him the best way I can. … Sometimes you gotta go out and warm the car up before you go to work, and that’s what me and Wentz and [Darren] Sproles and everybody that’s injured did. We had to go out and get the thing started, and now we’re here.”
Peters still hasn’t been on the field for a winning postseason game in his 14-year career, but he said that doesn’t matter — he’s here, and he thinks he has an impact in his current role. Peters, 36, also said he plans to continue his career, though despite a close relationship with owner Jeffrey Lurie, it isn’t clear whether Peters will get that chance with the Eagles.
Offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland said focus was the reason Vaitai played so well against the Vikings.
“Extremely focused, laser-focused. Locked in,” Stoutland said Monday. “Really, with him, [the trick is] to remember – I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it – to do the right things, the things that we’re coaching him on every day. When he does that? He’s extremely, extremely productive. Every once in a while, he’ll forget. He’s a young player still. He hasn’t done it over and over, like, Jason Peters is a master, because he’s done it so many times. He’s not yet that; he’s still a work in progress. He still has a tremendous upside to him.”
Stoutland confirmed that he uses Peters as a sort of personal coach for Vaitai.
“I’m coaching a lot of different players. So I always say to him, ‘Keep an eye on [Vaitai] for me, and if you see anything. … We don’t want to waste a moment, if we have to make an adjustment, let’s make the adjustment,” Stoutland said. “Let’s not wait two, three, four plays. So he’s been pretty good about keeping an eye on him and feeding me information, too.”
Against the Vikings, Vaitai’s job was pretty straightforward. Sunday will be different. Nominally, he will be matched against New England defensive end Trey Flowers, but it won’t be that simple.
“They’re all over the place,” Stoutland said. “You’ll see some of the linebackers will be walked up on the line, rushing the quarterback. So you have to study a number of different players.”
Vaitai said: “They’re very smart. I know that they’ll pick up our scheme and try to debug that.”
But every time he comes to the sideline, Peters will be there.