Rugby, Cold Calling Questions and the Other Ingredients That Make up the NFL’s Best Offensive Line
PHOENIX – For most teams in most NFL seasons, the offensive linemen are not superstars.
Their work of attempting to prevent men of around 300 pounds from breaking into the backfield and trying to create lanes for the ground attack is a remarkably difficult one, but it is not normally one that is conducive to receiving large amounts of attention.
It may, therefore, seem a little bemusing on first blush to see Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce with a plethora of cameras pointed in his face ahead of Super Bowl LVII.
Kelce is, of course, playing in special circumstances as he and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce prepare to become the first brothers to go against each other in a Super Bowl.
But the attention is not limited to Kelce. Tackles Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata each gathered a crowd this week at the Eagles’ media availability and, as the former heavily emphasized ahead of their clash with the Chiefs on Sunday, being out of the ordinary is a defining trait of this group.
The makeup of the Eagles’ offensive line is marked by its level of contrast. Kelce and Johnson stand as the veteran lynchpins, two perennial All-Pros who have long since set the standard at their respective positions and are destined for the Hall of Fame.
Then there is Mailata on the other side of the spectrum. The left tackle, a former South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league player, was selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft despite having never played a single down of football. Nevertheless, he’s blossomed into the Eagles’ undisputed starter at one of the most critical positions on the roster and has represented the biggest success story of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.
The stark difference in the journeys of the players anchoring the middle and the right side of the line from that of the unexpected star on the left side is a situation unique to the Eagles.
But the Eagles have thrived on being unique in 2022. Their multi-faceted offense is unique in how it slows even the strongest and fastest defenses through the way in which Philadelphia utilizes its dual-threat quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who has experienced a leap few envisioned in 2022.
And the success they have experienced on offense has come in large part because the mix of All-Pro veterans, two extremely dependable guards in Landon Dickerson and Isaac Seumalo, and a left tackle who has developed into a foundational piece of the attack.
As a whole, the Eagles rank first in pass-block win rate and second in run-block win rate, a dominance that can be attributed to the approach of Jeff Stoutland. The offensive line coach’s distinctive style helps make sure his group is never ill-prepared for any eventuality they might face.
“He’s unique, he makes every meeting like a game day with his voice,” Johnson said of Stoutland. “He’s very loud, he asks a lot of questions, we call those ‘cold calling’ questions, which is like a pop quiz, a lot of that puts you on the spot, answer questions under duress.
“He likes to simulate a game-like meeting room, which can be uncomfortable at times but you kind of respect it and you love it.”
The numbers illustrate the merits of Stoutland’s unconventional brand of coaching.
Johnson ranks second in pass-block win rate (89.6%) among offensive linemen with at least 100 total plays, Dickerson is ninth on that same list with a win rate of 83.5%. Dickerson’s pressure rate-allowed of 3.9% is the best among all guards, while Kelce (2.0) and Johnson (2.9) rank second in that regard among centers and tackles respectively.
Seumalo’s 7.0% may be less impressive, but it’s still better than the NFL average (7.1) for guards this season.
Both Seumalo and Dickerson have unquestionably benefited hugely from playing next to Kelce, whose aggregate win rate across pass protection and run blocking of 83.5% is second in the NFL behind only Laremy Tunsil of the Houston Texans.
Seumalo, who is finally solidified as a starter and was named a Pro Bowl alternate following years of persistent injury troubles, said both Kelce and Stoutland deserve tremendous credit for how the offensive line has coalesced into the elite unit in the NFL.
“To be a good offensive line you need really good players, and then Jeff Stoutland continually puts us in positions to be successful, we stick to our bread and butter and don’t try to do too much,” Seumalo told Stats Perform. “And then on the field, Jason Kelce puts us in really good spots. When you have a combination of really good players, really smart players and an offensive line coach that continually puts us in good positions, it’s going to be successful.”
Mailata’s progress encapsulates Stoutland’s ability to make things easy on his players. While he is still far from the finished article in pass protection (he’s allowed a pressure rate of 11.8%), he has excelled at preventing teams from disrupting the Eagles’ ultra-versatile run game.
He has allowed a run disruption rate of 6.6% that is ninth among all offensive tackles to have played at least 200 snaps in 2022, conceding a disruption to a defensive player on only 27 of his 411 run-blocking snaps. That’s even better than Johnson’s run disruption-allowed rate of 7.4.
Kelce leads all centers with a run disruption-allowed rate of 5.0%, while Dickerson is fourth among all offensive guards at 8.7.
Dickerson entered the NFL with the equivalent of a football master’s degree having played at Alabama under Nick Saban, but he’s still demonstrated surprisingly quick progress in making the switch from center to guard after suffering a knee ligament injury in his final season with the Crimson Tide.
“Mailata, Landon – the strength they have is unique,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of boxes they’re checking, which is physically gifted, speed, the more they’re playing the better they’re getting… they’re on their way to be consistent top of the game every year.”
Mailata and Dickerson checking those boxes have allowed Hurts and the skill-position players to torment opponents who reside in the defensive box. Linebackers are consistently crippled by hesitation due to the variety of threats they must account for when reading Hurts at the mesh point with his running back.
Of course, Hurts would not be able to generate such indecision in the minds of defenders without faith in the ability of his offensive line to hold up.
But with aggressive defensive lines who get too far upfield in their efforts to pressure Philadelphia’s quarterback extremely susceptible to the run, the line’s odds of keeping the pass rush at bay are improved by facing defenders who are fighting their natural instincts. That internal conflict also enables the Eagles to get their blockers on the front foot in the run game and create chasms for Hurts, Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell to surge through.
“The threat of Jalen… he’s become a really good passer this year, his ability to run and get a lot of offense there helps our offense tremendously and then his ability to scramble and make plays for sure is helpful, helps everybody, it’s definitely an advantage,” Seumalo added.
Should the Eagles keep a Chiefs defense led by All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones at bay and prevail in Glendale, there won’t be many doubting Stoutland’s group deserves recognition as one of the standout offensive lines of the Super Bowl era.