CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Stepping in for right tackle Lane Johnson, second-year man Halapoulivaati Vaitai knew he had to focus mentally, keep his cool, and stay patient in his first start of the season Thursday night in a prime-time game against the Carolina Panthers. If he did all of that, he would be fine.
“Jason Peters kept telling me that and I thought of it all game, especially when it didn’t start out so good,” said Vaitai, who gave up a first-possession sack against veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, who reached quarterback Carson Wentz and forced a fumble that Carolina recovered. “I just kept my cool and got myself back on track.”
The sack wasn’t completely on Vaitai, to be fair. Wentz pumped twice before Peppers hit him, so let’s maybe give the young right tackle some slack. What’s important is that Vaitai was solid after that and Wentz, in the face of a barrage of Carolina blitzes, was sacked only two more times the rest of the way and stepped up and threw three touchdown passes in the 28-23 Eagles victory.
The Eagles were 2-8 in 2016 while Johnson served his 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance policy. Johnson was stellar during the team’s opening five games, but suffered a concussion in Sunday’s win over Arizona and missed this game.
In stepped Vaitai.
“You know, I’m a lot more patient than I was a year ago,” said Vaitai, a fifth-round draft pick in 2016. “I know a lot more, I’m a lot more confident, and I’m relying more on my technique. That all helped tonight.”
The Panthers tested Vaitai, who worked against Peppers and Charles Johnson. They blitzed from his side, they moved players around, and they tried to confuse him. And while Carolina put hits on Wentz, the Eagles still gave him enough of a pocket to throw three touchdown passes in the huge victory.
“It was a great win for us,” Vaitai said. “I just did my job. I have a lot of confidence in myself. I felt I got a lot better last season and I’ve played this year, so I was ready to go. They didn’t do anything that surprised us. I knew they were going to come after me. I think it went pretty well. I know I have a lot more to learn, but it was a good game for us out there.”
Peppers was quiet the rest of the night, with only a quarterback hurry to his credit. Johnson had four assists. Vaitai did his job, taking the next step in his career: The Eagles know they have a quality sixth man on an offensive line that has played so well through six games.