Each week this season, we’ll breakdown a player, trend or scheme from the Eagles’ previous game using the coaches all-22 film. This week, we spotlight Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has filled in admirably for the injured Jason Peters at left tackle.
Early in the third quarter of last month’s Redskins game, Peters suffered a season-ending knee injury. Vaitai, who had replaced Lane Johnson at right tackle last year and for one game this year, and who had played one half for Peters in the season opener at Washington, was once again called upon. He struggled.
But with each passing game, the second-year offensive lineman has showed why the Eagles opted not to trade for a starting-caliber tackle before the deadline. Vaitai could never be as good as Peters, especially considering the circumstances, but the Eagles weren’t asking him to perform like a future Hall of Famer.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson: You can’t be a Jason Peters or whoever it might be. … Just let your talents show, trust your ability, trust your instinct, and good things are going to happen. And that’s what you’re seeing out of him.
Vaitai: JP’s still on my side. He texts me every now and then. He texted me before the game and he calls me after and [tells me] what I need to work on.
Scheming around Vaitai
Since the 49ers game, the Eagles have had offensive game plans that account for Vaitai. Per coordinator Frank Reich, they’ve taken a three-pronged approach. 1. The Eagles have remained balanced; 2. They’ve had a fair number of quick, timing throws; and 3. They’ve given Vaitai (No. 72) help in pass protection with chip blocking.
Reich: You’ve just got to keep defenses off balance that way, the timing and rhythm of it, because I think rushers get into a rhythm as well, so we try to keep them off rhythm.
Vaitai is still receiving a fair amount of help, as shown below in Sunday’s Cowboys game. But when a running back or tight end chips — in these cases, running backs Corey Clement (No. 30) and Jay Ajayi (No. 36) — it disrupts their routes.
Vaitai has for the most part done well in one-on-one situations.
Pederson: I’m calling less protection help to his side. He’s just really coming into his own.
On this 22-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery, Vaitai fended off Dallas defensive end Tyrone Crawford (No. 98).
Johnson: He’s not leaning as much. Once he gets his hands on somebody, usually it’s pretty strong.
Vaitai: I needed to do a lot of core [exercises]. Last year I thought I did a lot of core, but there’s no such thing as doing a lot of core.
Vaitai: What has helped me the most was just take two kicks and play basketball with him. That’s what JP used to tell me. … It’s just like playing basketball — shuffle, shuffle.
Vaitai played on both sides at TCU, but finished his collegiate career at left tackle. He’s had to work on technique for both flanks as the Eagles’ swing tackle. He is sometimes prone to overset — as he did when Carson Wentz got sacked here against the 49ers — and can get beat inside when edge rushers play off outside moves.
Peters, watching from home, will sometimes text an Eagles equipment member during the game to relay a message to Vaitai about his technique.
Vaitai: It makes me feel like he’s right there next to me.
He’s still a work in progress, and has yet to face an elite edge rusher, but when Wentz gets the ball out in time, he typically does enough. Crawford got around Vaitai on this 17-yard touchdown pass to Jeffery, but he was behind Wentz and the ball was out before he could close in on the quarterback.
Vaitai is still adjusting to some of the different looks defenses typically throw at offensive lines. He had trouble with this stunt against Dallas.
He’s tough on himself. On Tuesday, he was asked to grade his performance so far.
Vaitai: Not very high. I don’t feel like I’m doing the best I can at left tackle, but I’m working very, very hard to achieve that goal. … I tend to second-guess. I rush through things and I need to be more patient.
Vaitai’s technique on this second quarter pass was OK, but Crawford tipped him off balance and altered a Wentz throw that was nearly intercepted.
When Vaitai was pressed into duty in the second Redskins game, he had issues in the run game, as evidenced below.
But he has made significant improvement. He has been especially sound when asked to move in space. On this LeGarrettte Blount carry against the Cowboys, Vaitai disposed of the penetrating defensive tackle — before pulling right guard Brandon Brooks even had a chance to trap block him — and angled off the linebacker at the next level.
On an identical pull trap play, Vaitai and left guard Stefen Wisniewski walled off the linebackers as Clement bolted 11 yards for a touchdown.
Vaitai’s block that has generated the most attention came when he was the pull lineman on Ajayi’s 71-yard dash.
Reich: That particular block was a tough block and how athletic he was and how his hips and leverage into the block just creating just enough of a hole for Jay.
Johnson: It’s been in the playbook all season, since OTAs. It’s just a matter of when we run it. Different weeks we’ll pick different plays from the arsenal. That was one we liked this week.
Vaitai: We knew they played a lot of man coverage, so they were covering the tight ends. So pull me and my job was to get that frontside linebacker.
He got him.