Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert haven’t been on the field together in more than two months. It’s just one of the many reasons the Eagles have a 3-7-1 record and are ranked 25th in scoring and 28th in total offense.
Goedert injured his ankle in Week 3 and missed four games. Two weeks before he returned, Ertz injured his ankle and has been sidelined for five games.
Ertz was activated from injured reserve earlier this week and is expected to play Sunday against the 8-3 Packers, though his limited participation in practice the last two days would seem to indicate it’s still not a sure thing.
The injuries to Goedert and Ertz have forced coach Doug Pederson to play a lot less 12- and 13-personnel than he did last year, and rely much more on 11-personnel packages featuring the team’s young – and inexperienced – wide receivers, who don’t have the chemistry with quarterback Carson Wentz that Ertz and Goedert do.
Last year, Pederson used 12- and 13-personnel on nearly 56% of the Eagles’ offensive plays (615 of 1104).
In their Week 4 win over the Packers at Lambeau, they used 12/13-personnel on 29 of 60 plays. It benefited both their run and pass games. The Eagles rushed for 176 yards on 33 carries against the Packers in the win. Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard combined for 159 of those yards. Ninety-nine of them came in 12/13-personnel.
“When we have 12- or 13-personnel, I feel the run game is unstoppable,” Sanders said Thursday. “I think the run game is unstoppable regardless. But it’s definitely going to help getting Ertzy back. We’ve missed him out there. He’s excited to be back.”
Wentz attempted only 27 passes in the win over the Packers last year. But he was 6-for-10 for 52 yards and a touchdown in 12/13-personnel packages.
The Eagles went almost exclusively to 12/13-personnel groupings at the end of last season, when they rose from the dead and reeled off four straight wins to win the NFC East. They used 12/13-personnel 78% of the time in those four games.
The damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma for a defense going up against a 12-personnel package that has two excellent pass-catching tight ends like Ertz and Goedert, as well as one of the league’s best run-blocking tight ends in Goedert, is: Do you play your base defense, which helps you against the run but makes it difficult to match up against Ertz and Goedert? Or do you play nickel, which gives you an extra defensive back but leaves you more susceptible to the run.?
After drafting three wide receivers in April, the Eagles planned to sprinkle in a little more 11-personnel this season but continue to use a lot of 12 and 13. Before Goedert went down on the 10th play of their Week 3 tie with the Bengals, they had used 12/13-personnel on 68% of their plays in the first three games.
Since then, they have relied primarily on 11-personnel. In the 580 snaps since Goedert got hurt, they have used 11-personnel 72.9% and 12/13-personnel just 24.8%.
In Ertz’s absence, veteran tight end Richard Rodgers has played well, which, given the lack of production from the wide receivers lately – they had a combined nine catches for 46 yards Monday night against Seattle – and Goedert’s in-line blocking ability, may encourage Pederson to use more 13-personnel going forward. The Eagles can throw and run out of it.
Rodgers has 24 catches and two touchdowns and is averaging 14.4 yards per catch. His 345 receiving yards are the second most of his career. He had six catches for 85 yards in the Eagles’ Week 7 win over the Giants. In the last three games, he had nine catches for 161 yards and two TDs.
“I like 12-personnel,” Pederson said last week. “I like when Zach and Dallas are in there [together]. I think RichRod has been a very positive complimentary piece in Zach’s absence. I’ve been very happy with how he’s played
“So I do think that maybe 12- or 13-personnel could be a little more involved in our game plans. But at the same time, I do like 11-personnel as well. I still like having some of those young guys on the field with the speed and being able to attack in that way as well.”
It should be pointed out that Ertz was struggling before he got hurt. He had a Week 1 touchdown catch against Washington and had seven catches for 70 yards against the Bengals. But in the next three games without Goedert before he got hurt, Ertz was targeted 21 times and had just nine catches for 48 yards.
Last year, Wentz had a 94.8 passer rating with 12-personnel compared twith 86.7 with 11. He had a 65.0 completion percentage and 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions with 12-personnel
This season, Wentz has struggled regardless of the personnel grouping. He has a 61.9 passer rating with 12-personnel (55.4 completion percentage, 6 TDs, 8 INTs) and 73.6 with 11 (57.8, 8 TDs, 7 INTs).
“Getting Zach back just adds another great player to the offense,” slot receiver Greg Ward said.
While Darius Slay may have struggled Monday night against the Seahawks’ DK Metcalf, his addition to the Eagles secondary this season definitely has served its purpose. Last year, the Eagles gave up 11 100-yard receiving games to wide receivers. This year, they’ve given up just three (plus one to 49ers tight end George Kittle) – to the Bengals’ Tyler Boyd (10-125), the Steelers’ Chase Claypool (7-110, 3 TDs), and Metcalf (10-177). And Metcalf was the only one of those three whom Slay was charged with covering all over the field.
When the Packers fired Mike McCarthy following the 2018 season and replaced him with Matt LaFleur, everyone was curious to see how Aaron Rodgers would take to a new offensive system after spending pretty much his entire career playing in McCarthy’s.
There were some growing pains last year as Rodgers got comfortable with LaFleur’s offense, which stresses quick, get-the-ball-out rhythm passing rather than the play-extending stuff Rodgers became famous for in McCarthy’s offense.
But in his second year with LaFleur, the 37-year-old Rodgers, who is just four years younger than his coach, is having one of the best seasons of his career.
He leads the NFL in passing (117.6) and touchdown passes (33), has thrown just four interceptions, and been sacked 11 times in 381 pass attempts.
According to Pro Football Focus, he is averaging just 2.50 seconds from snap-to-release this season, down from 2.74 seconds last year. He’s been under pressure on just 22.9% of his drop-backs. By comparison, Wentz has been under pressure on 36.9% of his drop-backs and has been sacked a league-high 46 times.
“That’s a credit to Aaron and the way he goes about his business,” LaFleur said Wednesday about the way Rodgers is playing in his second year in a new system. “Anytime, and you see it with the majority of experienced quarterbacks that have spent a long time in a certain system, there is a transition period. There always is.
“I know he’s worked really hard at it. He does every day. And I think you’re just seeing him becoming more and more comfortable with what we’re trying to get done on offense, and he’s excelling.”
In the Eagles’ Week 4 win over the Packers at Lambeau last year, Rodgers threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns. But an end zone interception by Nigel Bradham with 20 seconds left preserved a 34-27 victory.
“He can run and make plays with his feet, as well as make any throw on the field,” Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox said. “He’s just a great quarterback, and we’ve got to limit the guy as much as we can.
“We’ve got to get off the field on third down. This team barely reaches third down because they’re making so many great plays.”
The Packers are fourth in third-down efficiency, converting 48.5% of their opportunities. But their 130 third-down chances are the sixth-fewest in the league because, as Maddox correctly pointed out, they are so successful on first and second down.
Rodgers is third in the league in third-down passing with a 114.7 passer rating. He has attempted 101 third-down passes. Forty-eight of them, or 47.5%, have produced first downs.
Even with a first-ballot Hall of Famer as his quarterback, LaFleur prefers a balanced offense. The Packers are 10th in run-play percentage (43.6) and 13th in rushing attempts (27.6 per game).
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said the Packers, who are 10th in the league in rushing (121.9) and rush average (4.4), run the ball “sneakingly well.”
Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have rushed for a combined 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Their running game is underrated,” Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “All three backs [Jones, Williams, and A.J. Dillon] can do all different types of things. And they do them very well.