Wentz, Ea­gles stymied by Red­skins

WENTZ, BIRDS STYMIED BY SUD­DENLY HOT RED­SKINS Lack of any com­pe­tent re­place­ment cre­ates Lane to Wentz for Red­skins

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

LANDOVER, MD. >> The first whis­per leaked in early Au­gust. The first warn­ing siren came sec­onds later.

The re­port: Lane John­son had flunked a per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing-drug test. If so, as a sec­ond-time of­fender, it would cost him 10 reg­u­lar-sea­son games. The re­ac­tion: Trou­ble for the Ea­gles. Ma­jor trou­ble. Sea­son-defin­ing trou­ble.

With that, there were more tests and sam­ples and ra­tio­nal­iza­tions and tri­als and fi­nally, last week, a res­o­lu­tion. John­son was guilty, ac­cord­ing to the NFL. His 10-game sus­pen­sion would start Sun­day, when the Ea­gles were to visit Wash­ing­ton.

So it was there that the Birds’ sea­son would turn the wrong way in a 27-20 loss to the Red­skins that will res­onate through­out the tight NFC East for the rest of the sea­son. There, the Ea­gles learned that the sus­pen­sion of their valu­able right tackle was more than an in­con­ve­nience. There, they learned that John­son’s car­less in­dis­cre­tion, no mat­ter how much he tried to ra­tio­nal­ize his se­lec­tion of vi­ta­mins, was enough to cur­dle ev­ery­thing from their pass pro­tec­tion to their run­ning game to the still-de­vel­op­ing skills of a rookie quar­ter­back.

“Lane is a big part of what we’re do­ing,” Doug Ped­er­son said, as a los­ing streak hit two games. “He was play­ing well. And it was dis­ap­point­ing from that stand­point. But at the same time, we were handed these cards and we’re go­ing to play them. We will put up the best five up front. This is our job as coaches. This is what we get hired to do. And we are go­ing to do that this week.”

Even as his team stomped to a 3-0 start, which in­cluded a 34-3 vic­tory over the Steel­ers, the one card Ped­er­son was most quick to snap onto the ta­ble was the one that could buy him some pa­tience. It was the front of­fice that es­sen­tially ex­changed veteran Sam Brad­ford for rookie Car­son Wentz. And with that, there was some mea­sure of pre­scribed or­ga­ni­za­tional tol­er­ance. But it was Ped­er­son last week, when con­fronted with the loss of John­son, who chose not to boost his of­fen­sive line with a veteran, but to trust Halapouli­vaati Vaitai, a rookie, at right tackle, as if he were as OK with de­vel­op­ing a young player as he was in de­vel­op­ing a play­off team.

The trou­ble didn’t start too early. Just the first play. That’s when the ’Skins Ryan Ker­ri­gan came through the Vaitai side and smoth­ered Wentz. Be­fore the first drive was over, Ker­ri­gan would sack Wentz again. By then, the theme of the af­ter­noon was es­tab­lished: The Ea­gles, with a rookie quar­ter­back play­ing his first di­vi­sion

game, and on the road, would be un­der pres­sure for the next three­plus hours. And so would their coach­ing staff, which would be forced to em­ploy other tricks to pre­vent Wentz from be­ing bat­tered, in­clud­ing adding a tight end on that side or keep­ing an ex­tra blocker in the back­field.

To a point, it worked. But the Red­skins were re­lent­less, and the stress mul­ti­plied. And as it would hap­pen, Wentz was not only sacked twice on the Birds’ first pos­ses­sion, but on the last two plays of their fi­nal drive, too.

The Halapouli­vaati Vaitai ex­per­i­ment even­tu­ally may make sense. But one week in, it al­ready has a chance to seep into Philadel­phia sports lore as a punch­line.

Re­mem­ber that time in Wash­ing­ton …

“It started out just try­ing to get his legs,” Ped­er­son said. “We felt that he set­tled into the game. As the game wore on, we used more help on his side — re­ally, on both edges. He’s a war­rior. He’s a bat­tler. He stepped up to learn from it and get ready for next week.”

Some­body will have to be ready. That’s be­cause John­son ad­mit­ted to trust­ing a cock­eyed app from the play­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion that he says in­di­cated that what­ever sup­ple­ment he was in­gest­ing was NFLap­proved. The chem­istry tests said oth­er­wise.

Next week, the Birds will face the un­de­feated Min­nesota Vik­ings in the Linc. The way the NFL is, that would have seemed a tough spot for Min­nesota. But the Ea­gles will not be a prob­lem for many teams if their quar­ter­back is un­der the same as­sault as

Wentz was Sun­day.

“I don’t think the of­fense was real dif­fer­ent,” Wentz said. “I think it was tough for us to get in the groove to­day. It didn’t feel like we were in sync very well, es­pe­cially in the first half. The flow of the game was weird.”

That wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily Vaitai’s fault. He did set­tle later in the game. Ped­er­son did, how­ever, have other op­tions, in­clud­ing mov­ing Allen Bar­bre to tackle and us­ing guard Ste­fan Wis­niewski, a six­thyear of­fen­sive-line pro.

“I def­i­nitely think I can help and I will help any way I can,” Wis­niewski said. “Right now, that’s be­ing a backup. But I am hop­ing I will get a shot even­tu­ally.

“I was told that ‘V’ (Vaitai) had been prac­tic­ing re­ally well and they wanted to give him a shot.”

Though Wis­niewski thought that, he, too, had been prac­tic­ing well, he un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion. He was not go­ing to play. “Not un­less,” he shrugged, “some­body got hurt.”

Vaitai and the en­tire of­fen­sive line emerged in fine health Sun­day. Wentz did, too. Ped­er­son did say he wanted to get Vaitai ready for next week, a hint, though short of a dec­la­ra­tion, that he was not pre­pared to change his plan.

But the Ea­gles are 3-2 and John­son still has another nine games to serve. His ab­sence al­ready has mat­tered. Those warn­ing sirens were right.

ALEX BRAN­DON — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nowhere to Hide: Ea­gles quar­ter­back Car­son Wentz, cen­ter, is sacked in the sec­ond half Sun­day against the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins, Sun­day in Landover, Md.

ALEX BRAN­DON — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Out of Reach: Ea­gles tight end Zach Ertz, right, is un­able to hold onto a pass in front of Wash­ing­ton free safety Will Black­mon in the sec­ond half.

ALEX BRAN­DON — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Run­ning Wild: Red­skins run­ning back Matt Jones, left, tries to rush past Ea­gles de­fen­sive end Bran­don Gra­ham, cen­ter, and linebacker Jor­dan Hicks in the first half Sun­day.

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