CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It took Julius Peppers less time to go around Halapoulivaati Vaitai than it would have taken the Carolina Panthers' 37-year-old defensive end to pronounce the name of the Eagles' backup right tackle.
The visiting Eagles had picked up a couple of first downs on their opening drive and were working out of first and 10 at Carolina's 35 when Peppers, a nine-time Pro Bowl pass rusher, eluded Vaitai and slammed into Carson Wentz just as the Eagles' quarterback drew back the ball to pass. Wentz never saw Peppers, who stripped the ball. Carolina defensive tackle Kawann Short recovered.
"I went against a very good player in Julius Peppers … That first sack was my fault, really," Vaitai said after the Eagles' 28-23 victory at Bank of America Stadium. "I should have set 'up' instead of staying flat. That's a technique error on my part. I've got to learn from my mistakes."
This brought back the sour taste of this week a year ago, when the Eagles imploded in Vaitai's first NFL start. That day, at Washington, Lane Johnson was beginning his 10-game NFL suspension, and Vaitai was thrown to the wolves by a coaching staff that lacked experienced options. It did not go well, Ryan Kerrigan doing the same sort of thing several times early that Peppers did last night on the first series. The Eagles lost, 27-20.
Now, with Johnson sidelined by a concussion, same week, different city, same story. Except after that strip-sack, it really wasn't. Vaitai caught his breath. The Panthers, who have an excellent defense, did get good pressure on Wentz in the first half – three sacks before halftime, none after – but a lot of it was through blitzing, and Eagles backs not picking up the blitz.
Vaitai wasn't matched against Peppers that much, but he pretty much held his own against whichever member of the Blue Man Group lined up across from him, often Charles Johnson but really a group effort to pressure the most inexperienced member of the Eagles' group.
"They switched off. It felt good to be back [in the lineup]," Vaitai said. "After that first drive, I bounced back. I trusted my coach …. During the second half, we picked [the blitz] up. They weren't getting home as much. I feel pretty confident about that."
What was the difference, from the way things went in 2016?
"Patience," Vaitai said. "Last year I wasn't patient at all. But it all has to do with experiencve."
This was Vaitai's first start of 2017. He'd played his most snaps this season in the opener, 45, all of them at left tackle in the wake of a minor Jason Peters groin injury. Frankly, Vaitai didn't look real good, but the Eagles won anyway.
Thursday night he was at his more natural position, as he was in the second half of Sunday's blowout victory over the Cards., in which Vaitai played 34 snaps. Thursday he played a strong role in an Eagles rushing attack that plowed 101 tough yards on 27 carries, and more a more productive passing attack that saw Wentz throw his third touchdown pass of the evening on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Eagles worked their way to a 28-16 lead on that touchdown pass, a slant to Nelson Agholor.
The game got closer after that, mostly because of a succession of defensive penalties on the Eagles.
The Birds blew a chance to close out Carolina when Wentz missed Zach Ertz on third and 7 from their 19, with two minutes, 13 seconds remaining, but the defense held on fourth down on the ensuing Carolina possession, and Vaitai and the offense came out to kneel down and close out their fifth victory in six games.
"He did well," right guard Brandon Brooks said of Vaitai. "We came in, made halftime adjustments, made the right ones, came out and it worked."
Now, that much-tweeted stat about the Eagles' record without Johnson (2-8 last season)? It's 1-0 for 2017.