PITTSBURGH — If the names were covered next to the receiving numbers from the Eagles' game against the Steelers, most would have assumed Zach Ertz was responsible for the 10 catches on 13 targets for 152 yards and a touchdown.
Especially considering the skill position personnel the Eagles had available Sunday.
But it was receiver Travis Fulgham, the unlikeliest of breakout stars this season, who put up those statistics in the Eagles' 38-29 loss at Heinz Field. Ertz, meanwhile, was at the bottom of the ledger with just one catch on six targets for 6 yards.
Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz will take catches, yards, and touchdowns wherever they can get them, but the Eagles have one win in five games, and one reason has been the lack of production from their Pro Bowl tight end.
Ertz has caught only 20 of 35 targets this season for 145 yards (7.3 average) and a touchdown, but his numbers over the last two weeks have been alarming. He has caught five of 11 targets for just 15 (!) yards, 1.4 yards per pass attempt.
Asked why Wentz and Ertz have struggled to develop a rhythm, Pederson pointed fingers in several directions.
“I don’t know. Obviously, we know defenses know exactly where he’s going to be and they’ll usually put a corner or safety, sometimes double him,” the Eagles coach said. "They give him a lot of respect. It’s something that, too, he’s got to look at himself, as we all do.
“And we just got to keep working, we got to keep fighting. As coaches, we got to find ways to get him uncovered.”
Defenses have keyed on Ertz before. The Eagles, to their dismay, have had few threats at receiver before. And one would think that Fulgham’s success Sunday would have freed up the tight end as the game progressed.
But Ertz saw only one pass come his way after Wentz threw an early third-quarter interception on a pass that was intended for the tight end. He got knocked off his route by linebacker Vince Williams — probably beyond the allowable 5 yards — and the throw went right to cornerback Steven Nelson.
“He ran into the linebacker that was dropping,” Wentz said. “I don’t know if it was [incidental contact] or what. But it’s a timing throw, timing route, and when he runs into the linebacker it’s kind of a tough break.”
Wentz has played as much into Ertz’s early-season woes as anyone. His accuracy issues have affected every ball catcher, but particularly with the tight end when so many of his routes are based on timing.
Ertz has dropped only one pass on 20 catchable passes, per Pro Football Focus. Only one of his targets Sunday could be deemed catchable. The Eagles had a screen called for him later in the third quarter, but a pressured Wentz threw it at his feet.
The quarterback and tight end had their droughts before. In 2016, Ertz caught only nine passes for 92 yards over a four-game span. In 2017, he grabbed just six of 11 passes for 42 yards over a two-game spell. But never have the numbers been this bad, and the losing has only amplified the decline.
“It’s one of those things I’m not worried about,” Wentz said. “As far as chemistry goes, I feel great with Ertz. I think we’ve showed that over the years. That was the type of day it was today, and really last week. I still feel confident he’s going to get open, he’s going to get his, going forward.”
If the old adage about looking at the back of a baseball card of a slumping star holds true in football, Ertz’s numbers will eventually creep back to the norm. There’s been no apparent sign of physical regression. But he’s got a way to go.
In his first seven seasons, he caught 68.6% of targets and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt. In the first five games of this season, he’s caught only 57.1% for an average of 4.1 yards. Ertz should improve.
It should be noted that the Eagles have been without their other top tight end the last two weeks — Dallas Goedert, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury and will be out for at least another week. No other team in the NFL had used two-tight-end sets as much.
In the first two weeks, 12-personnel would at least get Goedert matched up against linebackers with safeties or cornerbacks following Ertz. With Ertz as the lone tight end on the field in most packages, the Eagles should be able to find ways to get him favorable draws.
If the Steelers can get receiver Chase Claypool matched up against linebacker Nate Gerry on the game’s key third down — and the Eagles tip their caps to Ben Roethlisberger for recognizing the coverage and changing the play at the line — then why can’t Pederson and Wentz do same with a tight end?
Ertz has to play better. He would be the first to admit as much. There will be speculation that his unhappiness with his contract situation is factoring into his recent slide, and while it is fair to at least ask that question, there is no proof that it’s in his head.
He said before the season that he won’t allow it to affect his performance. Unfortunately, he has only spoken with reporters once — partly because of COVID-19 restrictions — since he publicly questioned the front office’s long-term commitment to him.