Offensive linemen generally fly under the radar unless their mistakes cause a series of quarterback sacks or prevent key third-down conversions. But in their attempt to even the season series with the Dallas Cowboys today and win the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles have several O-line issues that bear mentioning. First and most importantly, veteran center Jamaal Jackson(notes) tore his ACL against the Broncos last Sunday and will miss a start for the first time in 77 games. Replacing him in the middle of that line is Nick Cole(notes), a fourth-year player who has spent his time with the Eagles as an injury replacement and occasional fullback in goal-line or jumbo packages. The Eagles gave Cole a second-round tag before the 2009 season, and he'll be in line to earn every bit of his one-year, $1.545 million contract this afternoon.
Not only will he Cole making the line calls and spotting protection issues (with some teams, quarterbacks call protections, but the Eagles' centers take that task), but when he snaps that ball, he'll be facing Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff(notes), who might be the best at his position in the game. At 298 pounds, Ratliff cedes 52 pounds to the ginormous Cole, but it isn't going to matter when he hits -- Ratliff is a complete one-off who can bull inside in a 3-4 or line up in different places in four-man fronts.
And for all the talk about how the Eagles can't run smashmouth up the middle, they run between the guards 48 percent of the time, just shy of the NFL's 50 percent average. The real issue is giving Donavan McNabb enough time to throw those pretty deep passes to DeSean Jackson(notes) and Jeremy Maclin(notes). Ratliff had two sacks when Dallas beat the Eagles on November 8, and he completely demolished the Washington Redskins' patchwork line last week with his ability to exploit protection mistakes.
Cole isn't the only one with a supreme challenge in the pass protection department. Left tackle Jason Peters(notes) hasn't lived up to the "elite left tackle" hype, and looked decidedly mortal against Denver's Elvis Dumervil(notes) last week. Now, he's up against DeMarcus Ware(notes), and he must hold the point so that the Eagles can run tight end Brent Celek(notes) out of blocking purgatory and confuse the Cowboys with multi-route matchups. The good news for Philly's line is that right tackle Winston Justice(notes) has been a very pleasant surprise this season -- he'll be dealing with Anthony Spencer(notes), whose game has also improved.