Examine the Eagles’ three second-half touchdown drives in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Cowboys, and you’ll see one significant similarity.
All three scoring plays -- and every single play on those scoring drives, for that matter -- featured their one-running back, two-tight end, two wide-receiver personnel grouping, known in football parlance as “12’’ personnel.
The Cowboys game underscored something that’s been pretty obvious for a while, that the Eagles’ offense is at its best when their top two tight ends – Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert – are on the field together.
Ertz is one of the NFL’s top pass-catching tight ends. He has 98 receptions and needs just 13 in the last three games to break Jason Witten’s single-season record for catches by a tight end.
Goedert has had an impressive rookie season, catching 25 passes and four touchdowns, and he has quickly developed into a capable inline blocker for a kid who came out of a college spread offense.
The Eagles used 12 personnel on 25 of 48 plays (52.1 percent) against the Cowboys. Quarterback Carson Wentz was 15-for-20 for 155 yards and three TDs with the 12 grouping.
A breakdown of the Eagles’ offensive numbers by personnel groupings clearly shows that they have been much more productive running and throwing the ball with 12 and 13 (1RB, 3TE) personnel than they have been with 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR).
Wentz and Nick Foles have a combined 110.7 passer rating with 12/13 personnel this season, including a 70.8 completion percentage, 15 touchdown passes, 3 interceptions, and 12 sacks (1 per 16.8 attempts).
Their passer rating with 11 personnel is 92.0, including a 68.6 completion percentage, 7 TDs, 4 interceptions, and 21 sacks (1/13.2).
The Eagles’ backs also have run more effectively out of multiple-tight end sets. They are averaging 5.0 yards per carry with 12 personnel compared to 4.2 with 11.
Which begs the obvious question: Why doesn’t head coach Doug Pederson make 12 personnel the Eagles’ primary personnel grouping.
The Eagles have used 12/13 personnel on 44.7 percent of their offensive snaps this season, which is considerably more than last year (31.3), before they drafted Goedert.
But why not use it more than that? Why not use it the majority of the time when it’s your most-productive alignment?
Three-wide receiver personnel groupings are all the rage around the league. On Sunday, the Eagles will face a Rams team that lines up almost exclusively with 11 personnel.
But that’s what works best for coach Sean McVay. It’s not what works best for Pederson and his offensive coordinator, Mike Groh.
At least not this season. And given the fact that Goedert is only going to get better, probably not for the foreseeable future.
But playing more two-tight end formations would mean giving fewer snaps to wide receivers Nelson Agholor and newcomer Golden Tate, and the Eagles don’t seem willing to do that.
“Each week, game plans are different,’’ Pederson said. “It just depends on how the defense wants to sub. If they go nickel (five defensive backs), then there’s a really good opportunity to stay in 12 personnel and run the football. And we’ve had some success doing that.
“But not every team subs the same way on defense. This team we’re playing this week [the Rams] plays a little bit more base defense to everything on first and second down.’’
The benefit of having two special and versatile tight ends such as Ertz and Goedert, though, should be that you can dictate to the defense, rather than the other way around.
When a defense stays in base against Ertz and Goedert, you can exploit the coverage mismatches in the passing game. When it goes to nickel, you can run or pass.
“Eleven [personnel] is kind of the trend right now," Ertz said, "because, most of the time, you get a defense that has an extra DB, and typically, it’s easier to run the ball against that defense. But, at the same time, when you have two tight ends who can do both [block and catch], I feel like it presents a lot of matchup problems. You can’t be one-dimensional. In years past, it was like that.
“When Trey [Burton] and I were on the field, it was a pass. When Brent [Celek] and I were out there, it was a run. But with Dallas and me, or Richard [Rodgers] and me, or all three of us, we can mix it up.’’
Seven years ago, Bill Belichick’s Patriots used 12 personnel almost exclusively with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and that worked out pretty well before Hernandez self-destructed. The Pats won 13 games that year and made it to the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards, and 24 touchdowns (wide receiver Wes Welker also caught a league-high 122 passes). The Patriots finished second in total offense (428 yards per game) and third in scoring (32.1 points per game).
Belichick didn’t give a damn about how many linebackers or defensive backs the other team had on the field. He put Gronk and Hernandez out there and dared defenses to stop them.
“It depends on who you’re playing and the way you think you match up [best],’’ Groh said. “I think it’s week to week. Sometimes, you have a better advantage in different personnel groups than other. That’s what we’re doing -- trying to figure those things out.’’
Figuring the Eagles
--Carson Wentz was 1-for-4 on throws of 20 or more yards against the Cowboys. That completion was a 42-yarder to Nelson Agholor. In the last four games, Wentz is just 2-14 on throws of 20 or more yards. For the season, he’s 17-for-46 (36.9 percent). That’s actually a higher completion percentage than last year, when he was 22-for-65 (33.8 percent) on 20-plus-yard throws.
--In the last three games, just 26 of Wentz’s 109 throws (23.8 percent), excluding batted passes and throwaways, traveled more than 10 yards.
--Six hundred-forty-three of the Eagles’ 832 offensive plays (77.3 percent) have been run out of shotgun. That’s a significant increase over last year, when 69.7 percent of their plays were out of shotgun.
--The Eagles blitzed just five times on 57 Dallas pass plays (8.7 percent). Dak Prescott was 5-for-5 for 66 yards and one touchdown when Jim Schwartz sent extra rushers. The Eagles have blitzed on just 10 of 124 pass plays (8.1 percent) in their last three games.
--Opponents have converted 45.2 percent of their third-down opportunities against the Eagles in the last seven games, compared to just 29.5 in the first six games. That’s the fifth worst third-down defensive percentage in the league during that period, ahead of only the Bengals (52.1), Falcons (47.1), Raiders (46.4), and Chiefs (45.5).
--In the last five games, opponents have a 116.4 passer rating against the Eagles on third down, including a 76.9 completion percentage.
--Just eight of the defense’s 34 sacks, and only four of their last 25, have come on blitzes.
--The Eagles have scored 28 points in the first quarter this season. They’ve scored 42 in the fourth quarter in the last three games.
For the second year in a row, Carson Wentz’s season probably is ending early. Last year, it was a shredded knee. This year, it’s a fractured vertebra in his back.
When he went down last year in Week 14, he was leading the league in touchdown passes (33) and third-down passing (123.6), and his team was 11-2 and on a Super Bowl run.
This time, he’s fourth in the league in completion percentage (69.6) and actually has a better overall passer rating (102.2) than last year (101.9). But, his football team is 6-7, and while football is the ultimate team game, quarterbacks ultimately are judged by their record.
As defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to say when he is asked how someone played, Wentz was 6-7.
Wentz is 14th in touchdown percentage after finishing first last year. And he has slipped to 16th in third-down passing (90.2), which is more than 30 points lower than last year.
“I don’t see a drastic difference in him this year, other than he’s missed some layups,’’ said ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, who spent seven years in the league as a quarterback.
“He’s been asked to do more and has been relied on more. The running game hasn’t been there. They’ve been beat up a little bit injury-wise.
“You could say that the greatest strength of that team last year was that they were five deep when it came to [offensive] weapons. They’re not this year.
“For the majority of the season, they were two deep. Right now, they’re probably sitting three deep. The team and the scheme of that offense was built to be five deep. And I don’t know that they’ve had those consistent weapons this year.’’
Wentz set such a high standard last season that it was going to be nearly impossible for him to surpass it this year.
Only one player has thrown more touchdown passes in his second pro season than Wentz. That was Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who threw 48 in 1984.
“I still feel he played at a really high level,’’ Orlovsky said. “Like I said, I think the biggest difference this year is that he missed layups. But I still think he made some difficult plays, some magical plays.’’