One notable takeaway from the first three days of Eagles training camp is how often the offense has aligned in “12 personnel" – two tight ends, two wideouts, one running back.
Get used to seeing that and hearing about it. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert figure to be on the field together quite a bit this season.
Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Saturday that deploying Ertz and Goedert at once not only plays to an Eagles strength but effectively counters a prominent NFL defensive trend.
“It’s a very versatile personnel group. … You’re not getting base defense as much as you used to. More people play in what we would call a ‘big nickel,’ so they are bringing a safety into the game rather than a corner [as the extra back],” Groh said.
Groh said he thought the Eagles might have led the league in 12 personnel snaps last season. Sharp Football Stats has them just behind Houston’s 40 percent. But in a league that increasingly favors three wideouts, one tight end and one back – “11 personnel" – the Birds definitely stand as outliers. It’s worth noting that none of those teams that prefer playing three wideouts has a tight end combo quite like Ertz and Goedert.
“We still really like that matchup with both of our tight ends on a safety … whether it be in the passing game or running game,” Groh said.
After the Eagles made Goedert their top 2018 draft pick, in the second round, they increased their use of such sets from 23.4 percent in the Super Bowl season to 37.1 last year. This was a big part of how Ertz set an NFL record with 116 catches – 53 came in 12 personnel. Multiple tight ends on the field also proved to be a productive setup for quarterback Carson Wentz, who threw 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions from two- or three-tight-end formations.
“We're very focused on that personnel group,” said Groh, after the Eagles’ first day wearing pads in this camp. “We know we have a really strong group of five skill guys … when we’re in ‘12’.”
Groh added that he feels equally confident in the ‘11’ grouping, but “last year at this time … we were just getting to know Dallas's game. Now we really understand Dallas's strengths. From that standpoint, we're further down the road.”
Ertz said he likes “12,” because it allows him to move about the formation, changing matchups, while Goedert holds down the fort.
“Instead of being the tight end, I’m more of the guy in the slot, if we’re on the field together,” Ertz said. “He’s always going to be the guy, typically, with his hand in the dirt, and I’m the guy that they’re able to move around a little more.
“We’ve had a lot of success with it. I just love the little, minute, kind of games within a game.”
Goedert is listed at 6-foot-5, 256, pretty much identical to Ertz’s 6-5, 250, but in person, Goedert sure seems to have a thicker, bulkier frame. His fast development as a blocker has allowed Groh and head coach Doug Pederson to get more creative with Ertz. Goedert was drafted to catch passes, as high-round tight ends always are these days, and he snagged 33 for 334 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, but he has proved to be a multipurpose tool.
“You got a good look at it today in the passing game,” Groh said, when asked what stands out about Goedert. “The guy is explosive, gets down the field in a hurry, he's a big target. He has soft hands. He's easy to spot down the field. Had a really explosive play, a really good-looking play there [Saturday, deep across the middle] to Dallas.
“Even more than that, he is continuing his development on the line of scrimmage as a blocker, really understands the game and the communication it takes to not only play his position, but [work] next to the tackle, and all the things they have to get done together. He was really strong at the point of attack, and continued to improve all year long last year.”
Goedert said South Dakota State played 12 personnel a lot his first two years, not much the next two. He said this spring the Eagles knew “that was kind of a thing, going into camp, we were going to work on ‘12,’ we were going to see what we could do, different things, make sure everybody knows their spots. I think it could be a big part of the offense.
“I’m good with being the in-line tight end. You can do a lot of things with your hand in the dirt, maybe match up against linebackers a little bit more. Zach can take the safeties. … If I’m on the field, I’m happy.”
Actually, Goedert acknowledged, he would be even happier if he could be the guy catching the 116 passes, but he likes winning and he likes learning from Ertz.
“His total attitude about everything – he’s one of the hardest workers on the team, he’s in year seven, he’s sitting in meetings taking notes,” Goedert said. “The way he takes care of his body, all that, just kind of try to take that from him and hope I have a long, great career, like he does.”
In his rookie season of 2013, Ertz caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns, playing 41 percent of the offensive snaps, behind Brent Celek.
“I’ve been in his shoes, in the past, obviously, going into year two behind Brent,” said Ertz, who jumped to 58 catches, 702 yards and 50 percent of the snaps his second season. “I kind of know what he’s going through, what he will go through. But it’s going to be a fun year.”