The Eagles created their plan for Thursday’s game against the Carolina Panthers expecting Halapoulivaati Vaitai to start at right tackle – not Lane Johnson.
Johnson, the Eagles’ Pro Bowl-caliber tackle, suffered a concussion Sunday and is in the league-mandated concussion protocol. With only three days between games, it will be difficult for Johnson to be cleared in time to start Thursday.
“It’s tough based on the protocol and what the players have to go through,” coach Doug Pederson said. “It’s hard on a short week.”
The Eagles returned to work on Monday. They ordinarily have the day off, but they had a walk-through in the afternoon and will be on the practice field Tuesday.
Johnson, a five-year veteran, could always step into the lineup if he’s cleared in time. Unless that happens, the Eagles will turn to Vaitai, a second-year player who started six games while Johnson was suspended last season.
“I have to plan that way going into this game,” Pederson said.
After Sunday’s game, Johnson told the Inquirer/Daily News that he’ll “be all right” and said “yeah” when asked if he’ll play Thursday. But the very nature of the concussion protocol takes the decision out of the control of Johnson and the team trainers. There are five physical and cognitive steps that Johnson must pass before he’s cleared by an independent neurologist.
Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz each missed a Thursday game in recent years because of a concussion suffered on the previous Sunday. Ertz would not comment directly on Johnson’s situation, but he acknowledged that it was “extremely difficult to play that following Thursday.”
Although it’s difficult to replace Johnson, the Eagles are in a better position inserting Vaitai into the lineup this season than last. Vaitai stepped into the lineup last year as a rookie fifth-round pick who had never appeared in an NFL game. If he starts Thursday, he will do so having taken 423 offensive snaps last season and 95 this season. He stepped in for Johnson in the second half of Sunday’s win and the offense scored on his first two drives.
“He’s one that the more he plays, the better he gets,” Pederson said. “Even on a short week, for him not getting a ton of reps at tackle to come in off the bench like he does is just a tribute to the way he prepares himself and the way he battles and gets better every time he gets out there.”
It’s a tough assignment for Vaitai on the road against a Panthers defense that has 9.5 sacks from its edge rushers. Vaitai could see time against veteran Julius Peppers, who has 5.5 sacks this season and 149 in his career.
Vaitai is the only reserve tackle on the roster. The Eagles will practice Isaac Seumalo at tackle this week to prepare him for that role Thursday. Seumalo could also fill in on Vaitai’s tackle-eligible snaps as the extra tight end. That could be another way for the Eagles to work the 2016 third-round pick back into games.
“In Isaac’s case, he’s had a couple weeks now to see it from a distance, and I fully expect he will be ready to go this week and prepared,” Pederson said. “And sometimes, too, even on a short week it’s very beneficial for a player because they don’t really have time to think. They can just go out and play, and next thing you know, you’re playing in a game.
The reason Seumalo is available as a reserve is that he was demoted from the starting left guard after two weeks. The Eagles will continue rotating left guards Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack, although Wisniewski is expected to see more playing time. Wisniewski took 63 percent of the offensive snaps on Sunday with Warmack playing the other 37 percent. Wisniewski has outplayed Warmack since the Eagles adopted this two-guard rotation in Week 3, but the Eagles keep winning and Pederson isn’t compelled to reward Wisniewski with the full-time job even though he’s seen enough to give him more playing time.
“Just [his] overall body of work,” Pederson said. “He’s a pro’s pro. This guy works extremely hard and he does a nice job even when he’s not in there. When he’s in there, he is making the most of his opportunities, but it’s been the total body of work for him that’s been the most impressive.”