Von Miller, Broncos. Justin Houston, Chiefs. DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys. Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants. Joey Bosa, Chargers. Akiem Hicks, Bears. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington, twice. And, Sunday night in Seattle, Michael Bennett, Seahawks.
These are the most dangerous men Lane Johnson has faced this season.
These pass rushers — some linemen, some linebackers, all stars — have combined for 72 1/2 sacks this season. None has fewer than 6 1/2. They’re on a pace for at least 12 sacks apiece.
To the group, Johnson surrendered one sack.
To Kerrigan, in the season opener. Johnson, the Eagles’ right tackle, has shut out the rest.
This alone should put Johnson in his first Pro Bowl.
These defensive players have seen 15 Pro Bowls. Bosa is the reigning defensive rookie of the year. Lawrence leads the league with 13 1/2 sacks.
To have run this gantlet and surrendered one sack is the stuff of greatness. Johnson has the right stuff. With due respect to Carson Wentz, Brandon Graham, Zach Ertz and Fletcher Cox, Johnson has been the best player on perhaps the best team in the NFL. In fact, he has been the Eagles’ best player for some time now, but he’s never been in a position for honors.
Johnson was playing even better last season through the first four games, playing the way the No. 4 overall pick from 2013 should play, but then his season was ruined. He lost his appeal of a 10-game suspension, the result of a second failed test for performance-enhancing drugs. It was his second suspension in three seasons. He was popped for PEDS in 2014, too. Both times, he offered plausible explanations — an unapproved prescription, a mislabeled supplement — but, both times, he ultimately accepted blame. It left Johnson desperate to validate himself.
Consider him validated. He has surrendered two sacks in the Eagles’ 12 games, according to the website Pro Football Focus, which grades him third among active tackles.
“I saw this coming during the offseason, facing these guys and playing this well,” Johnson said. “I just had to stay out of my own way. I’m my own worst enemy. I just wanted to show the world what I can do.”
What he has done is propel the team to a 10-2 mark, the top of the NFC heap. Where would the Eagles be without him? Well, they were 2-8 without him last season. They were 5-1 with him. That’s the same win rate as this season. The Eagles upgraded their personnel from last year. No position got a bigger upgrade than right tackle.
“Usually, if I do well, that helps the team out,” Johnson said. “It’s been my best year.”
It’s been against the stiffest of competition.
“Go look at their stats. Look at mine. I’m the least-helped tackle. I don’t get help,” Johnson said Sunday night, sweat dripping from his shaved head as he stuffed his bag and prepared to leave the locker room. “I didn’t get help tonight.”
He didn’t need help against Bennett, the Seahawks defensive lineman who went to the last two Pro Bowls. The Eagles lost, and Johnson was disappointed, but he also was proud of the way he’d played.
“I blocked this guy one-on-one the whole game, probably 40 times,” Johnson said. “You saw what he did.”
Bennett did nothing, really: no sacks, one assisted tackle. Johnson made him disappear, and so brought himself a step closer to recognition. It is not assured.
“I see a lot of politics involved with the Pro Bowl,” Johnson said, warily, like a man accustomed to disappointment; he knows his fate likely lies in the hands of his peers and their bosses. “I hope they don’t try to deny me.”
That seems unlikely. As of last week, he led all tackles with 106,181 fan votes, but those votes count for only one-third of the selection process. Players and coaches vote, too, and the ballots of all three groups carry equal weight. Fan voting will end Dec. 14, and the team will be announced Dec. 19.
He should be on it.
Johnson is a complete lineman who can be as ferocious a run blocker as pass protector.
It was Johnson who opened the lane for Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run at Dallas. Later, on the game-clinching drive, Johnson leaped into the second level and cleared out linebacker Justin Durant during LeGarrette Blount’s 30-yard rumble. Johnson then pancaked Lawrence on a 17-yard TD pass. It was the second time he blocked Lawrence to the ground.
He flattened Miller and Bennett once each, too, but Johnson seldom overpowers his opponent. His artistry lies in his balance and his hand work. That comes in handiest against a player such as Bennett — big, fast, strong, and clever.
Late in the third quarter Sunday, as Bennett charged and swiped, Johnson punched and withdrew, punched and withdrew. He wouldn’t let Bennett sweep his hands away, and herded Bennett all the way to the other side of the field. This gave Wentz two extra seconds to hit Nelson Agholor for 32 yards. On the next play, Johnson baited Bennett with one hand to the chest, then withdrew it; Bennett swiped at air. Wentz found Ajayi for 11 yards.
Johnson hasn’t been perfect. He’s 6-foot-6 and 317 pounds, so Hicks, at 332 pounds, bull-rushed him all day and coerced a false start. Kerrigan beat Johnson for the sack at Washington. Johnson appeared to have held Bennett with a minute left in the first half Sunday night, but officials give you the benefit of the doubt when you’re playing at a Pro Bowl level — even when you’re playing against a Pro Bowl player.
When the Eagles lost left tackle Jason Peters to a knee injury on Oct. 23, they faced a decision: move Johnson from right tackle to left, or start second-year backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle. Vaitai played well at right tackle last year while Johnson served his suspension, but with Miller, Lawrence, Hicks, and Bennett on deck, the Eagles chose to lean on Lane.
They have won four of their five games since. Johnson didn’t allow a sack to Miller, Lawrence, Hicks or Bennett. The Eagles chose wisely.
Voters should do the same.