Big V Excelling With Help From Hall of Fame Mentor

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - Having Jason Peters as a mentor is kind of liketaking piano lessons from Vladimir Horowitz or acting lessons from De Niro.

You can't help but improve.

And Halapoulivaati Vaitai sure has improved.

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Vaitai played his best game yet in the NFC Championship Game, neutralizing feared pass rusher Everson Griffen in the Eagles' 38-7 blowout win over the Vikings at the Linc.

"Yeah, I was just locked in that night," Big V said. "I didn't have any worries. I just try not to have any worries going into a game, but yeah. In my opinion I think I played pretty good."

And Peters was there the whole way to encourage him, support him, help him.

"He's been playing great, man," Peters said. "I always encourage the guy and keep him calm. He's been doing great. I'm just happy for him.

"It's going to take time. Guys are going to beat you. You just have to have a strong mindset to just keep coming back and battling."

Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowler, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second Redskins game. Big V struggled at first but has gradually grown into the left tackle role.

With Stefen Wisniewski healthy and solidifying left guard, the left side of the offensive line has gone from liability to a real strength of this offense.

"It's gotten (more) calm as each week's gone by," Vaitai said. "Still not comfortable, still have to work to do, but as the weeks go on I guess my nerves have calmed down a little bit.

"The more repetition, the more experience I get (the better I'll play). I just have to continue doing what I'm doing. It's night and day (over earlier this year)."

With All-Pro Jason Kelce at center and Pro Bowlers Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson at right guard and right tackle, the Eagles have dominated on the right side all year. Now the left side is holding its own.

The Eagles' offensive line muscled the Vikings' vaunted defensive line out of the Linc in the NFC Championship Game and will have to play just as well Sunday if the Eagles are going to have a chance in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

"He's made strides throughout the year," Brooks said of Vaitai. "He did the same thing last year (at right tackle).

"The biggest thing J.P. told him out of the gate, there's no replacing Jason Peters. Just be you and do what you do well and he took that to heart."

The Eagles have had elite left tackles in their two previous Super Bowl appearances.

Stan Walters was a two-time Pro Bowler in his ninth NFL season when the Eagles faced the Raiders in 1980. And Tra Thomas was a three-time Pro Bowler in his seventh NFL season when the Eagles faced the Patriots in 2004.

Vaitai is a second-year fifth-round pick who has still only started 18 games in his NFL career, including the postseason.

On Sunday, he starts in a Super Bowl.

"It's always been about the next man up," Vaitai said. "It's crazy to be in a Super Bowl and actually be the left tackle here, but I've got to give it all for J.P.

"It's unfortunate for him to go down but it's just one of those deals. It's crazy, but it's just another game. Just another game.

"I treat every game like a big game. But it's really cool to be in this spot, on this stage."

Obviously there are a ton of factors, but in the seven games Peters started, the Eagles' offense averaged 27.4 points and 381 yards per game and went 6-1. With Vaitai at left tackle, those figures were 24.5, 361 and 9-2.

Vaitai is clearly holding his own.

"He's a great player," said Peters, one of the best ever. "Once he gets his confidence up, you just can't really stop him. I'm going to be by his side all the way."

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