By Al Thompson
The guts of a football team’s offensive production, at any level, is measured on how the coaches mesh the offensive line with its running game.
The chemistry and execution of those two units often determine the success of the season.
The Eagles have a veteran offensive line that played together last year with the exception of right tackle Lane Johnson who sat out 10 games because of a PED suspension.
This year, though, the Birds are basically putting together a new running corps. Darren Sproles is the only running back returning with significant playing time and carries over the last few years.
Wendell Smallwood, now in his second year out of West Virginia, played in 13 games last year and accounted for 312 yards and one touchdown.
Veteran LeGarrette Blount — signed as a free agent this offseason — plus rookies Donnel Pumphrey and Corey Clement are new to the team.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, in his second year out of TCU, said the offensive line unit was making progress.
“It’s improving, we just need to keep working on communicating,” Vaitai said at his locker after a training camp practice. “There’s always room for improvement. We’ve got everything down, we just need to execute it right and communicate.”
Vaitai was asked about the Eagles making very few changes on the O-line this year.
Was that a sign they are happy with who they have in camp?
“I think so,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in the offensive line. There is a lot of competition with the offensive linemen too. It’s a good thing.”
Vaitai said he liked the group of running backs and how they are getting to know each other and the system.
“They’re good guys, they are getting it,” Vaitai said. “They’re trying to understand our offense.”
Vaitai said the running backs need to learn how their blockers operate, especially their footwork.
Giants head coach Ben McAdoo recently said his young group of running backs had to “learn the heels of their offensive linemen.”
Vaitai said he understood what McAdoo meant by that.
“They have to learn which guy we’re sliding to,” Vaitai said. “And which guy we’ve got and they have focus in for a second on each play and look where the gaps are forming.”
Left guard Brandon Brooks was asked the same question about running backs learning the heels of their lineman.
“It’s more or less … each running back has their own running style and how they read different things,” Brooks said. “They just need to get into the groove of things and understand how we block up front, the things that we do and how it affects their reads and what they need to be seeing their keys and stuff. We have certain footwork, certain angles we need to be on, things like that.”
Brooks said Blount will obviously catch on faster than the rookies and second-year players.
With all this talk about running backs and offensive linemen getting to learn each others’ steps, the Birds opened the preseason against the Green Bay Packers and ran the ball just 19 times for a measly 47 yards and no touchdowns on the ground.
Head coach Doug Pederson called 54 pass plays — in a preseason game.
NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger looked at the Eagles-Packers preseason game and said these games are for getting your blocking techniques down and to practice tough game situations.
“They should look at these games honestly,” Baldinger said. “And just use these games for every situation. They should go for it on fourth down. They should go for it on fourth and one from the goal line. They should try every possible situation you are going to be in at crunch time during the regular season. You should be getting into as much situational football as you can.
“That includes if you want to try a fake punt or whatever … also can the center snap it to the up back? They should try these things right now.”
Baldinger said there are plays you only practice during preseason games.
“The one area you can’t work on in practice is the inside run game,” he said. “You’re just not going to beat guys up and you don’t want to tackle. You should be working on all those inside combo blocks, doo-dad blocks and getting to the second level. You should be running these plays regardless of the result.”
The Eagles ran the ball much better against a bad Miami team but must get better, especially their rookies.
Pumphrey said he needs to learn more about his line and fundamentals. The Eagles gave him 11 touches against Green Bay and the rookie produced just 17 total yards. It wasn’t poor blocking on every play for sure.
After four preseason games, Pumphrey has 26 carries for 49 yards, no touchdowns. The team has averaged just 3.12 yards per carry. It has to improve.
“I’m definitely happy with the touches,” Pumphrey said. “I felt like I could have done a lot more with those touches. They are giving me the opportunities to showcase myself, I just have to do better in space and make plays. I was disappointed.”
Pumphrey has also fumbled twice, the team nine times, losing four.
“You can’t do that at this level,” Pumphrey said. “Turnovers are a big part of the game. Whatever team turns the ball over usually ends up on the bottom. Football at this level is a business, and if I continue to fumble, I’ll no longer be here.”
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii