Good morning, Eagles fans. I'm writing this from somewhere above Virginia on my way down to Charlotte for Thursday's Eagles-Panthers game. This is a special Thursday edition of Early Birds, the twice-weekly newsletter breaking down the Eagles. (Because of the schedule, it'll come three times this week.) It's free to sign up here to receive in your inbox every Monday and Friday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
He is ready. He is ready. …We're not changing the game plan or any of that. – Doug Pederson on Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Oct. 12, 2016
He's getting better. He's played and that's the biggest thing for him is he's playing with a little confidence right now too which also helps him. … We don't have to change or alter the game plan because of it and it gives the quarterback lot of confidence going forward. – Pederson on Vaitai, Oct. 11, 2017
Do you believe him?
The Eagles stayed on message this week whenever asked about Vaitai. But they offered similar confidence last season. Remember Vaitai's first start, when Ryan Kerrigan sacked Carson Wentz twice on the first series? That game had a lingering effect on the season. Vaitai improved with time, but the Eagles were never the same without Johnson.
They will need to rely on Vaitai again Thursday because Johnson is out with a concussion. Vaitai will be tasked with blocking Julius Peppers, a potential Hall of Famer who has 5.5 sacks this season and 149 in his career. He must protect Wentz and try to keep an offense that has been rolling in recent weeks from sputtering on national television.
The concern is not as much an indictment of Vaitai as it is a testament to Johnson. Since the start of the 2016 season, the Eagles are 9-2 when Johnson is in the lineup. They were 2-4 when Vaitai started at right tackle. Correlation does not always imply causation, but Johnson's value to the Eagles is indisputable.
So why should there be more confidence in Vaitai this October? Experience has been the answer cited most often this week. His technique has improved and he's a hard-working player. He entered the lineup in a tough spot last season – a rookie fifth-round pick playing for the first time on the road against Kerrigan. He had 423 snaps to learn from last season, a full offseason with the team, and 95 snaps this year. Vaitai is no longer an unknown rookie entering the lineup. Wentz pledged confidence in Vatai throughout the summer and again this week.
"We know Lane is an unbelievable football player, we know he's one of the top tackles in the league…but if he's not out there, I have all the confidence in the world in Big V," Wentz said. "I've been saying it all offseason. The O-line is a serious strength of this football team. Especially the depth."
I don't think Vaitai will be a disaster. But I do think you'll notice he's out there. The Eagles could offer help, whether it's an extra blocker or a tight end to chip. That was the route they needed to take last year. How Vaitai does early will likely determine whether the Eagles go in that direction.
Johnson's injury isn't long-term, so he should be back quickly. The concussion protocol is in the best interest of a player's safety, but a player is practically helpless for a Thursday night game if the concussion occurred the previous Sunday. It's too difficult to get cleared that quickly. My guess is you'll appreciate Johnson more when he's not in the lineup than when he's in there.
Zach Berman: What's the biggest focus going into a game like this against Cam Newton and the Panthers offense?
Jordan Hicks: "Us. Ourselves. To me, it's more about us reading our keys, us staying disciplined, staying focused. Because it is so easy, the moment you lose that focus and you look one way, they're going out the other side. Doing your own job, every single play, and just staying in tune with what they're doing."
Zach Berman: It seems Cam Newton is beating teams more with his passing. What are you seeing on film?
Jordan Hicks: "He's doing a great job putting the ball where it needs to be, seeing guys downfield, keeping his eyes downfield. When he scrambles, he scrambles not with his head down, but he's looking for guys to throw the ball to. He's doing a great job of that."
Zach Berman: You're known as a player who does a lot of preparation during the week. When you only have three days between games, how does that change your schedule?
Jordan Hicks: "Just moves everything up and condenses it. Usually, you have a few days to get everything in. Now, it's cut down, so you get a little more in each day. First, second, and third [downs] [on Monday], red zone, goal line and short yardage [on Tuesday]. It just speeds everything up. But we'll be ready to go."
If the Eagles win this game, it's time to rethink what this team can do. (Or at least for me to rethink it — maybe you already think this team is a contender.) Winning in Carolina on a short week without Lane Johnson would be a signature regular season win for Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson, and the Eagles. And 8-1 would not be out of reach going into the bye. The next three games are at home against Washington, San Francisco, and Denver. The Eagles already beat Washington; San Francisco is winless; Denver is a tough team, but they're playing the Eagles on a short week after a Monday night game in Kansas City. It's hard to go on six-game winning streaks in the NFL. But a win on Thursday would make this a realistic possibility. Remember, the Eagles are 8-2 at home under Doug Pederson.
You're going to see Stefen Wisniewski more this week than in past weeks, and he already took two-thirds of the snaps last week. My guess is you'll barely see Chance Warmack. The Eagles don't want to relegate Warmack to the sideline, but they know Wisniewski deserves to be at left guard. They tried justifying the rotation last week by saying their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. The proof is on the field. Wisniewski deserves to be playing. He'll take a significant portion of the snaps on Thursday.