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Eagles are going all-in on Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, and “12” personnel

Can the Vikings' three-safety "big nickel'' stop Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and their "12'' personnel packages?

Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz (86) and Dallas Goedert (88) might be the key to victory Sunday against the Vikings.
Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz (86) and Dallas Goedert (88) might be the key to victory Sunday against the Vikings.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

As long as Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert stay healthy, it’s becoming pretty clear that “12” personnel – one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers – is going to be the engine that powers the Eagles’ offense.

In back-to-back wins over the Packers and Jets, the Eagles played “12” personnel on 66 of 119 snaps, or 55.5% of the time. They are expected to play a lot of it again on Sunday against the Vikings.

“We obviously feel really good about Dallas, and having Dallas and Zach and the combination of them with two wide receivers and a running back,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “We’re very versatile in that group and can do a lot of different things both in the run game and the pass game.

“I think that’s a personnel group that you’ll continue to see a lot from us. But at the same, we’re going to play the game week to week depending on what we think gives us the best advantage. But we’ve felt really good about that personnel group the last several weeks.’’

Because the Eagles have two tight ends who not only are excellent pass catchers but also can block, it’s tough to defend their “12” personnel packages. If the defense chooses to stay in its base package, Ertz and Goedert can find mismatches in the passing game. If it elects to go smaller and faster and play nickel, then the Eagles have an advantage in the run game, particularly given the impressive development of Goedert as an in-line blocker.

“When you have two special tight ends like we do,’’ said quarterback Carson Wentz, “you can use them and use them effectively.’’

Two weeks ago, they played a Packers defense that likes to load up on defensive backs. The Eagles used “12” personnel on 26 of 60 plays, running the ball 16 times out of it and throwing it 10 times. Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders averaged a collective 7.8 yards per carry.

In last week’s 31-6 win over the Jets, the Eagles used “12” personnel on 40 of 59 plays (67.8%), Wentz completed 12 of 18 passes out of “12,” and 148 of his 189 total passing yards were with “12” personnel.

“Obviously, Dallas and I feel we’re one of the best tight-end duos in the league, if not the best,’’ said Ertz, whose 116 receptions last season, 63 of which came in “12” and “13” personnel packages, were the most ever by a tight end.

“We present a lot of problems for defenses. Two guys that have a lot of experience playing with their hand in the dirt and playing out wide. You really have to choose what you want to do against us – stay in base or use an extra DB. In theory, either way, we have an advantage.’’

In their 23-21, Week 5 loss to the Vikings last year, the Eagles used “12” personnel on 28 of 55 plays (50.9%). The Vikings countered by using their three-safety “big nickel’’ with Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and Jayron Kearse against it.

The Eagles had success running and throwing against the Vikings’ three-safety look last year. They averaged 6.2 yards per carry, and Wentz completed 9 of 16 passes for 76 yards but was sacked twice.

Ertz had one of his most productive games of the season, catching 10 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown. Four of his receptions were in “12” personnel. Another was in “13.” Goedert had two catches in “12” personnel.

Both Ertz and Goedert said they expect the Vikings to go with their big-nickel look again Sunday when the Eagles trot out “12” personnel.

“We expect the big nickel going in,’’ Ertz said. “We’ll see what they do the first time we roll ’12′ personnel out there. But I think it’ll be the three safeties -- 41 [Harris], 22 [Smith], and 27 [Kearse].’’

The Vikings matched up the 6-4, 215-pound Kearse on Ertz.

“He’s a big, long safety,’’ Ertz said. “A very talented player. A freak of an athlete. It’s a really good test for us.’’

Said Goedert: “We feel we can handle anything. If they go big nickel again, I think we can still run the ball, and the matchups are good in the pass game.’’

Figuring the Eagles

--Jim Schwartz blitzed on 16 of 36 pass plays (44.4%) in Sunday’s 31-6 win over the Jets. That’s the Eagles’ second-highest blitz rate in a game since Schwartz became their defensive coordinator in 2016. The Eagles’ highest blitz rate under Schwartz, interestingly enough, was in 2016 against the very quarterback the Eagles will be facing this week, Kirk Cousins. Cousins was playing for Washington then. Schwartz sent extra rushers on 13 of 23 pass plays (56.5%) in a 27-22 Redskins win. Cousins was just 5-for-11 for 45 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two sacks when the Eagles blitzed him that day. Schwartz’s defense has faced Cousins five times in the last four years. He’s sent extra rushers after Cousins on 53 of 183 pass plays (28.9%). Schwartz’s blitz rate in four seasons as the Eagles’ defensive lieutenant is just 19.8%. Cousins has a 52.1% completion rate, one touchdown, and three interceptions and has been sacked five times when the Eagles have blitzed him.

--Through the Eagles’ first five games, 59.2% of Wentz’s throws have traveled zero (the line of scrimmage) to 10 yards. That’s a considerably higher percentage at that distance than last year, when just 49.6% of his attempts were 0-to-10-yard throws. He’s completed just 69% of his throws from that distance, which is down from 75.8 last year.

--Carson Wentz has a 54.4 passer rating in the first quarter in the first five games. That includes a 48.3% completion rate and zero touchdown passes. He was only slightly better in the first quarter last year, when he had a 77.6 passer rating, a 62.2% completion rate, and three TD passes. In 2017, when the Eagles were one of the fastest-starting offenses in the NFL, Wentz had a 118.3 first-quarter passer rating that included a 66.7% completion rate, 8.7 yards per attempt, 10 touchdown passes, and just two interceptions.

The Philly kid who’s running the Vikings offense

Kevin Stefanski’s first NFL job was as a training-camp operations intern with the Eagles at Lehigh during the Summer of T.O. in 2005.

“I stocked coolers with Gatorade, made copies of scripts for practice, drove players around town in a minivan, you name it, I did it,’’ the St. Joe’s Prep and University of Pennsylvania product said in a phone interview with the Inquirer on Thursday. “Anything and everything.’’

It was the kind of entry-level grunt work that just about every NFL coach does at the beginning of his career. Fourteen years later, Stefanski, the son of longtime NBA executive and former 76ers general manager Ed Stefanski, is the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, who will face the Eagles Sunday in Minneapolis.

Coaches typically are gypsies, moving from job to job as they work their way up the professional ladder.

Stefanski is one of the lucky ones. Hired by former Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress after he became the Vikings’ head coach in January 2006, Minneapolis is the only NFL home Stefanski has known in his career.

He’s been with the Vikings organization for 14 years and has worked for three head coaches, serving as an assistant to the head coach (2006-08), assistant quarterbacks coach (2009-13), tight ends coach (2014-15), running backs coach (2016), and quarterbacks coach (2017-18) before replacing the fired John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator late last season.

“Having played defense in college [he was a safety and team captain on a Penn team that won three Ivy League championships] and then bouncing around the [Vikings’] offensive staff, it’s just amazing what you can learn once you’re coaching those positions,’’ he said. “For me, those years and those experiences with the different positions have really, I hope, informed me in my current job.’’

Stefanski’s first year as the Vikings assistant quarterback coach in 2009 also happened to be the year that the Vikings signed Brett Favre.

“That was quite a year,’’ he said. “It was awesome. I did a lot of listening in that meeting room. I did a lot of just sitting back and taking it all in. Watching the guy perform was incredible. As a young coach, just to see how a vet and how a pro approached the game, and the things he saw, it was like going to the graduate level immediately, which was really cool.’’

DeFilippo was fired with three games left in the 2018 season. Stefanski, 37, was named interim offensive coordinator, then was given the job permanently after the season.

“It wasn’t ideal,’’ he said. “You never, ever want to get a job that way. But when those things happen, there’s a game to play. And you jump right back into the week and the preparation for that game.

“Having a full offseason with a new staff and a new system, I hope has been beneficial as we put something together that we feel real good about.’’

DeFilippo basically was fired by head coach Mike Zimmer because he was throwing the ball too much. Stefanski clearly has received the message. Through five games, the Vikings are averaging eight more rushing attempts (30.6) and 12 fewer passing attempts (25.2) per game than last season.

“We want to be able to do both,’’ Stefanski said. “We don’t want to go into any game and be one-dimensional. We want to have the ability to run it and pass it and be explosive both ways.’’

Stefanski is going to be an NFL head coach one day. It’s not a matter of if, but when. He’s smart, charismatic, relates well to people, including his players, and is well-regarded around the league. He interviewed for the Cleveland Browns head-coaching job in January.

He hasn’t forgotten the part that Childress played in his career.

"To this day, he’s a good friend and mentor,’’ Stefanski said of Childress, who was the Vikings coach for five years and now is a senior adviser with the Bears.

“Brad just allowed me to grow as a coach,’’ he said. “He gave me tasks and moved me to the offensive side and put me in the quarterback room and gave me room to grow, all the while supporting me.’’

This and that

--Fox Sports analyst Charles Davis has not been surprised at all by the play of Eagles running back Jordan Howard. In the Eagles’ last two games, Howard is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, has three rushing touchdowns, nine rushing first downs, and seven double-digit-yard runs on 28 carries. “It’s not unexpected for me,’’ said Davis, who will work Sunday’s Eagles-Vikings game with partner Kenny Albert. “I think what was a little unexpected was how little we saw him earlier. Obviously they drafted Miles Sanders for a reason. He had a great camp and I understood all of that. But Jordan is a very good player. There were some suggestions that he was going to be the new LeGarrette Blount for them. But he’s quicker than Blount. He runs with force behind his pads, but he’s going to make a few more people miss [than Blount could], even though that’s not a huge forte of his. He sees the hole and he goes. The last two games, he’s looked like the Jordan Howard I saw his first two years with the Bears. He looks like that back again.’’

--Wentz has been impressed by the job both Howard and Sanders both have done in blitz pickup and pass protection. “It’s grown a ton,’’ the quarterback said. “During training camp, during offseason workouts, you see that they mentally know what’s going on. But it’s another thing to go out there and physically pick up a blitzer and hit it right in the face and give me time. Seeing them do it as effectively as they have gives me a ton of confidence that if a different linebacker blitzes than what we’re calling, they’re going to pick it up and I’m going to be able to stand in there and hang tall.’’