PHILADELPHIA — With several inches of snow piled on the field, plowing straight ahead made sense for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Their offensive line made the strategy pay off.
Chip Kelly rattles off the numbers of those offensive linemen when asked to explain the success of his team’s run game. Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson don’t get much recognition, but coaches and teammates credit the big guys up front for helping LeSean McCoy and the offense lead the NFL in rushing.
That’s helped the Philadelphia Eagles (8-5) take a one-game lead in the NFC East.
“We’ve got some guys that can block, and we’ve got a very, very talented running back,” Kelly said. “This whole deal is a personnel-driven thing, and we’ve got some really talented guys on the offensive line.”
The line had its best game of the season in a 34-20 victory over the Detroit Lions. They dominated defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, paving the way for McCoy to run for a franchise-best 217 yards on a slick, snow-covered field in blizzard-like conditions.
McCoy had touchdown runs of 57 and 40 yards in the fourth quarter and Chris Polk had a 38-yard TD run. The Eagles ran for 299 yards and scored four TDs rushing against a defense that hadn’t allowed a TD on the ground in the previous eight games and came in ranked No. 3 against the run.
“We love when we are able to have so much success in the run game,” Mathis said. “We don’t really put much emphasis on where teams are ranked against the run. We just put on the tape and try to figure out the best way for us to block our opponents.”
Left guard Mathis, center Kelce, and right guard Herremans were responsible for shutting down Suh and Fairley. They opened up gaping lanes, allowing McCoy to gain most of his yards up the middle.
“You don’t really think about the hype,” Kelce said. “If our team’s going to be successful, it really came down to us three getting it done against those two. Those two are pretty much the heart and soul of that defense.”
Mathis, Kelce and Herremans wore down Detroit’s linemen, overpowered them and consistently drove them backward. That allowed Kelly to call more power runs instead of read-option style plays where the backs run outside the tackles, a difficult task on a slick field.
“When you’re running the ball effectively, you always believe you are forcing your will on the opponent,” Kelce said. “The best thing to hear is the defensive guys yelling at each other. That’s usually a good sign.”
McCoy, trying to become the first Eagles player to lead the NFL in rushing since Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren in 1949, has 1,305 yards on the ground. The team is averaging 158.4 per game and 4.9 yards per carry.
“The guys up front gave me opportunities one on one by blowing those guys off the ball,” McCoy said. “I think everybody was so intimidated and scared of Detroit’s guys up front, but I thought the big guys on my team took the challenge and stepped up.”
Continuity has helped the linemen develop into one of the top groups in the league. All five guys have started every game this season. A year ago, only Mathis played 16. Peters, the five-time Pro Bowl left tackle, missed the entire season after twice rupturing an Achilles tendon in the off-season. Kelce tore knee ligaments in Week 2 and missed the rest of the year. Herremans missed the final eight games because of foot and ankle injuries.
They came back healthy and joined Mathis and Johnson, a rookie No. 4 overall pick.
“The fact that we’ve all been healthy this year has allowed us to evolve as a unit over the course of the season,” Mathis said. “It seems that we have gotten better in many facets of the game just because we get so many repetitions together. Jeff Stoutland, our OL coach, has done a tremendous job working with us. He approaches the game with unparalleled passion and attention to detail.”
Playing in Kelly’s up-tempo offense is no easy task for linemen. They need to be in superb cardiovascular shape to run so many plays without stopping to huddle. Rigorous offseason workouts set the tone, and players continue to work hard during the season. They’re in the weight room more this season and they keep that fast pace going during practices.
“We could not have come to a better place more suited for this offense because of the bigger players,” Stoutland said. “I haven’t seen one guy say: ‘I can’t make it, or I can’t run this many plays.’ I’ve seen defensive players on the other side of the ball make those comments. One thing I love in practice, players are playing fast even late in the season. This offense leads to that mentality.”