It was early, and the Eagles were moving against the Panthers, but they had a big run wiped out by a penalty and they looked ready to stall: second-and-6 at their own 35. So, of course, they sent starters Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to the sideline and called on Marcus Johnson.
Johnson had one catch in his career, for 6 yards, the previous week. He went undrafted in 2016 and spent most of that year trying to secure a spot on the Eagles’ practice squad. But Doug Pederson doesn’t care about pedigree. If you dress, he should be able to use you, and he carves out time during the week to make that so. Johnson was ready.
To be completely accurate, the play didn’t exactly feature him. Carson Wentz took the snap, faked a handoff, and rolled to his left. Tight ends Trey Burton, Brent Celek, and Zach Ertz all rolled with him; options No. 1, 2 and 3. None got free.
“Usually, the underneath route comes open,” Johnson acknowledged. “It’s a bottom-to-top progression. It just so happened they got covered up. Carolina played it well. Then it was up to me, one-on-one with the DB.”
One-on-one, 16 yards downfield. Johnson had charged hard at cornerback Daryl Worley. Suddenly, Johnson dug in and turned around. Wentz delivered. One foot, then the other, in-bounds. First down. The play flipped the field and set up a a field goal on the way to the biggest win in Pederson’s two seasons.
Just as he planned it.
Last year injuries, a PED suspension, and a midseason release turned the roster upside-down. The disruptions came after the team’s 3-0 start, and they pushed the Eagles down a 2-9 slide that ruined the season. They needed quality depth.
To that end, at the end of training camp, Peterson announced that he was trying something different. He would hold 15-minute sessions after practice for backup players and practice squad players so they could run first-team plays with assistant coaches. Usually, those players just work on the scout squad, running the opposition’s plays.
It has worked wonderfully. When left guard Isaac Seumalo struggled in the first two games, backup guards Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack replaced him and immediately improved the position; Wisniewski has since earned the job full-time. Ronald Darby, the No. 1 cornerback, injured his ankle in the opener, but solid play from veteran safety Corey Graham and rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas have saved the defense. Right tackle Lane Johnson missed the last game and a half with a concussion; Halapoulivaati Vaitai was ready. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks missed the second half against both the Giants and Panthers, but Joe Walker and Najee Goode, who mainly play on special teams, kept the heart of the defense strong.
This has been months in the making.
“We implemented it back in OTAs. We began a developmental program with some of our younger players, and getting them more reps, whether it was splitting the two fields or spending time after practice,” Pederson said. “Coaches do a great job spending time with their younger players. I think that’s been a big part of why there hasn’t been a significant drop-off in the play.”
It made a difference against the Panthers.
Early in the third quarter, with the Panthers trailing by eight points and having first-and-goal from the Eagles 5, Cam Newton threw a fade route to big receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was covered by Douglas. A clear an advantage for the Panthers, it would seem. But no: Douglas anticipated the route, beat Benjamin to the spot, and knocked the pass down in the end zone.
“I’ve been working on my eye progression,” Douglas said. “Keeping my eye on my man.”
After Hicks left, Goode often had to keep an eye on Newton, the best running quarterback in the league and a killer in the red zone. On the play after Douglas’ pass breakup, Goode was responsible for containing Newton. Newton bought time, scrambled right, and inched toward the line. But Goode smoothly broke out of pass coverage, charged Newton, rushed the throw, and put a hit on him.
“You have to keep your radar up for him. We didn’t spy him, exactly, but we did some things to contain him,” Goode said. “We held them to a field goal after that. It definitely helped, getting the reps after practice.”
The extra practice isn’t exactly required for players such as Warmack, a fifth-year veteran who signed as a free agent, but staying after school has become kind of cool.
“I’m getting extra everything, man,” Warmack said Thursday, dripping with sweat after his post-practice practice. “You have to take it upon yourself, in terms of your development. I look at myself like a rookie, because I’m in a new system. I did some extra stuff today. It’s like shooting free throws in the NBA. Repetition. I work on my hands. Get my head back.”
You never know when the call will come.
“The route that I caught is a route that we don’t throw a lot. A few weeks prior, I’d made a couple of those catches in the extra practice,” said Johnson.
He thinks giving players on the fringes first-team reps keeps them engaged.
“When you rep something like that it in practice, it’s in the back of your mind: ‘Don’t lose hope,'” Johnson said. “And then when you get in the game, you know you’re the fourth read for the quarterback, or whatever, and you see him running, but you think, ‘I’m staying alive for him. Because this pass could be for me.’ ”
Even if it’s never been for you before.