It can’t just be the Zach Ertz Show.
As his 5-4 team prepares to host Bill Belichick and the Patriots on Sunday, Doug Pederson, who protects his players like the Secret Service, called out his well-paid, underperforming offensive and defensive weapons. The class of the NFL is coming to town, so put up or shut up.
If, as expected, Belichick targets the team’s Pro Bowl star tight end and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the team’s best player, then their supporting cast must ... support.
“Those skill guys have to step up and play, and make plays for the offense or defense,” Pederson said Wedensday.
The rest of the team won’t be able to ride Ertz and Cox this weekend. Put up or shut up, because the season’s on the line.
No more excuses.
No more explanations.
No more Mack Hollins is doing a great job because he manages to find his way to the field without a guide dog.
When told of their coach’s words, many of the players in question accepted the challenge.
“One hundred percent. That’s the reality of it,” said receiver Nelson Agholor. “The other three or four skill guys on the field have got to be explosive.”
“That’s normal for us,” Hollins said. “You expect people to take things away. Other people have to step things up.”
“We just want to put wins on tape every play,” said backup tight end Dallas Goedert.
Pederson’s declaration wasn’t exactly John McKay’s reply about his hapless Buccaneers’ execution -- “I’m in favor of it” -- but it wasn’t Pederson deflecting observations of insufficient performance. You get the feeling that, having been granted a reprieve with a Dallas loss Sunday that left the NFC East contenders with identical records, Pederson is finished with running interference for his players.
Pederson’s ground game has saved the season, but his offensive line has only recently performed to its pedigree, and his receiving corps leads the NFL with 20 drops.
Pederson’s defense, ever stout against the run, ranks just 16th against the pass, which sounds OK until you realize it has faced the Jets, Washington, and the Bears, the NFL’s three worst passing attacks (as well as the Bills, who are 24th). His defense’s 13 takeaways ranks 13th. Its 24 sacks ranks 16th.
These numbers aren’t appalling, but they’re not the sort of stats elite teams compile. The Eagles are supposed to be elite. Cast as one of the deepest and most talented teams in franchise history, they entered the season as an NFC Conference favorite. This Game 10 matchup at Lincoln Financial Field was supposed to be a Super Bowl preview, not a do-or-die proposition.
Pederson made it clear: The Eagles cannot afford to die if Belichick suffocates Ertz. He was asked:
Do you agree with the assessment that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick takes away your best (weapon) on offense?
“Yeah, it’s true,” Pederson replied. "Just go watch the Kansas City game last year -- the AFC Championship Game. The guy wearing No. 10 for Kansas City? Go watch him. He made some plays, but ... "
Tyreek Hill wears No. 10. He caught one pass that game, the second time since 2016 he’d caught only one pass.
Belichick’s philosophy migrated to Detroit with former Patriot’s defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in 2018, Pederson said. It worked.
“Go back and watch Detroit against us this year," Pederson said. Ertz had four catches for only the fifth time since 2017 and the Eagles lost, 27-24. "Same style of defense.”
That also was the Eagles’ first full game without top receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, but Pederson’s point was that the primary second-tier targets -- receivers Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Goedert -- combined for five catches and 72 yards that day. And that was the good day.
They’ve haven’t combined for even that much production in any game since. Almost all of their statistical contributions have come from Goedert, who has a respectable 19 catches for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
Hollins caught one pass for 13 yards at Green Bay the next week, which is the only reception for either him or Arcega-Whiteside in the last five games.
That’s why the Eagles re-signed affable re-tread Jordan Matthews on Monday. Don’t expect Matthews to save the season. He had 45 catches in 2017 and 2018 combined, and he played just three snaps for the 49ers this year before they released him last month.
It will take Matthews and a whole lot more to stop the 8-1 Patriots.
“The other 10 guys have got to step up and play, if he’s going to try to take Zach away,” Pederson said -- then, in an attempt at egalitarianism, he added, " ... or Nelly, or Alshon, or whoever it might be."
It’s hard to imagine that Belichick will scheme to limit Jeffery or Agholor. According to profootballfocus.com, of the 62 receivers targeted at least 40 times this season, Jeffery ranks 38th. Agholor ranks 62nd.
They are, by any measure, the worst $20 million receiving tandem in the NFL.
Pederson’s answer about Darth Hoodie negating the Birds’ best offensive weapon echoed his response to an earlier question concerning the attention Cox will receive. Foot surgery cost Cox the preseason, and he wasn’t himself until Game 8, when he returned to dominance.
“Fletcher’s been playing well, getting stronger," Pederson said, "and if that’s the case, then I would just say that the other 10 need to step up and do their jobs.”
He didn’t finish with the logical next phrase, so I will:
For a change.