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Eagles tight ends are giving opponents matchup headaches

The Eagles have run more than half of their offensive plays out of multiple-tight end sets this season. They've thrown out of them 60.8 percent of the time. Carson Wentz has a 113.1 passer rating when Eagles have 2-3 tight ends on the field.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) high-fives tight end Zach Ertz (86) after Ertz scored a touchdown in the second quarter of a game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Thursday, Oct. 11.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) high-fives tight end Zach Ertz (86) after Ertz scored a touchdown in the second quarter of a game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Thursday, Oct. 11.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

In a league where three-wide-receiver sets have become the norm, the Eagles have gone back to the future.

They are playing a ton of two- and three-tight-end sets this season, though, unlike the old days, they aren't using them to play three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football.

In their first six games, the Eagles have used "12″ (1 RB, 2 TE) or "13″ (1 RB, 3 TE) personnel on 50.4 percent of their offensive plays, which is a dramatic increase over last year, when they used 12/13 personnel just 31.3 percent of the time.

Even more startling: The Eagles have thrown the ball 60.8 percent of the time with 12/13 personnel.

"Those numbers are kind of crazy," said rookie tight end Dallas Goedert. "But I thought we'd have a good chance of doing that, especially with Zach [Ertz] out there. The dude's unguardable.

"We have a lot of playmakers at tight end. If they can find a way to use us, they will."

Ertz, who earned his first Pro Bowl invitation last season, is second in the league to the Vikings' Adam Thielen in receptions with 48. His 480 receiving yards are the most by a tight end.

But it has been Goedert's development as both a blocker and receiver, along with injuries to wide receivers Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins, that really have prompted the increased use of 12 and 13 personnel and the willingness to throw so much out of the groupings.

Goedert, the team's second-round pick in April, played a total of 34 snaps in the Eagles' first two games. In the last four, since Carson Wentz's return, he has played 153. He already has 13 catches and has done a nice job as an in-line blocker, which has allowed the Eagles to split Ertz out more often and use 12 personnel in almost any situation.

"It's been big for us because defenses can't hone in to, well, this guy's in the game, so they're going to do this," said tight ends coach Justin Peelle.

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"It's nice that Dallas can play at the line of scrimmage, and can also do some stuff for you in the passing game. And Zach obviously has improved his blocking greatly. So, he's not one-dimensional, either.

As for No. 3 tight end Josh Perkins, "I thought Perk's done a good job for us the last few games when he's been called upon. So it's been nice."

The 6-3, 223-pound Perkins already has played 81 snaps and has five receptions, including four for 57 yards in the Eagles' Week 2 loss to the Bucs.

In his four starts since returning from knee surgery, Wentz has a 113.1 passer rating with 12/13 personnel on the field, compared with 99.8 with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR).

He has a 66.7 completion percentage, is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, and has thrown six of his eight touchdown passes with 12/13 personnel.

"Any time we put two [or] three tight ends out there, we like the matchups," Wentz said. "We feel in that tight-end room we have matchup problems with all three of those guys."

Since teams historically have used multiple-tight-end sets as a power formation to run the ball, defenses usually use their base defense against 12 and 13 personnel groupings.

But when you have tight ends with the pass-catching skills that Ertz, Goedert, and former wide receiver Perkins bring to the table, it creates a dilemma for defenses.

If they stay in base, there are going to be coverage mismatches. If they sub a linebacker for a fifth defensive back, it makes them more susceptible to the run.

Indeed, the Eagles have been very effective running out of 12/13 personnel. They are averaging just 3.7 yards per carry with 11 personnel, but 4.7 with 12 and 13.

"With the emergence of Dallas at the line of scrimmage, you don't know" what defenses are going to do," Peelle said. "Are they going to play us in base or play us in nickel? It's a good problem to have."

"We're very comfortable with our two- and three-tight-end sets," coach Doug Pederson said. "If teams want to play nickel [against 12 and 13 personnel], that's great. Then we'll spend some time running the football with some bigger people.

"It's a chess match back and forth, and we feel comfortable with our guys on the field and taking advantage of those situations."

Said center Jason Kelce: "You're always trying to look for mismatches. When you have two big tight ends in there who are the receiving threats that Zach and Dallas are, I don't care whether you play base or nickel. At some point, we're going to get a mismatch somewhere. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. We're going to open up something."

With respect to Ertz, who is on a 128-catch, 1,280-yard pace, it really hasn't mattered what personnel grouping the Eagles have used or what defense the other team has trotted out.

He has 19 catches for 182 yards and one touchdown with 11 personnel, and 29 catches for 298 yards and one TD with 12/13 personnel.

"We like our matchups regardless of what the defense is doing," Goedert said. "When we go with three tight ends, they can put a safety on one. But somebody's going to be lined up against a linebacker. And that's always a good matchup for a tight end. We just have to keep winning those matchups and keep playing well."

"Their tight ends are solid football players," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "They're good route-runners. They've got good quickness, good speed, good hands. They most certainly can cause matchup problems, and that's what they're banking on."

Blitz pickup

The University of West Virginia prepares running backs for the NFL about as well as the Barbizon School of Modeling prepares somebody for a job at Goldman Sachs.

Wendell Smallwood refined his rushing and receiving skills in Morgantown, carrying the ball 425 times in 38 games and catching 68 passes. But pass-protection, which is a vital skill for a running back at the next level, wasn't part of the course load.

"Me and Corey [Clement] were talking about that the other day," Smallwood said. "I probably picked up one blitz in college. I probably never had to block. I was always running a route. I was literally trying to remember when I might've blocked someone."

In West Virginia coach Dana Holgersen's defense, the Mountaineers aren't the only team that sends running backs to the NFL without a clue how to block. Most top running backs arrive in the league with precious little experience in that area, only to learn that they're not going to get on the field very much until they can be trusted to protect their franchise quarterback.

"It's been an adjustment," Smallwood said. "Every rookie that comes into the league, blocking is stressed way more here than it is in college. Especially with the spread offenses [in college] and the things they do with the backs. It's a totally different ballgame."

As Smallwood has proven this season, he is a capable ballcarrier. He is averaging 4.7 yards per carry for the Eagles. In the last four games, he has averaged 6.1 yards per carry on first down.

He also is averaging 8.7 yards per catch on 11 receptions, including an impressive 12-yard touchdown catch in the Eagles' 23-21  loss to the Vikings.

>> READ MORE: Without Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles' secondary would be a big ol' mess | Mike Sielski

But his blitz-pickup skills have been hit and miss, and his progress in that area ultimately will determine how much he is on the field in the next 10 regular-season games.

"You're not going to get on the field if you don't understand blitz protection," Smallwood acknowledged. "[Running backs coach] Duce [Staley] will tell you straight up to your face: 'I can't play you.'

"If you get a [blitz] question wrong in the [running backs] room, it's embarrassing and he'll chew you out. He'll say, 'I can't put you out there. The quarterback will get knocked … out if I put you in there and you do what you just told me you would do in that situation."'

The return of Darren Sproles, whenever that might be, will help alleviate that concern considerably. Even at 35, Sproles is one of the best pass-protecting backs in the league.

This and that

— Remember that 13-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Alshon Jeffery early in the Eagles' win over the Giants in which he threw across his body into an itsy-bitsy window in the end zone? Doug Pederson initially thought Wentz's willingness to make that dangerous throw might have been influenced by the penalty flag that was thrown on the play on Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree. That Wentz figured he had a free play, so why not do his best Brett Favre imitation. Not exactly. Wentz said he never saw the flag. "It's hard to see flags when you're running around trying to see everybody else," he said. "I was just trusting Alshon to make a play, and he made it."

— Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he has no qualms about his quarterback, Cam Newton, running the ball so much. Newton is averaging nine rushing attempts per game this season. "You've got to look at the things we're doing and how we're doing it," Rivera said. "One of the things Cam says is he prefers to run the ball because at least he knows where the hits are coming from. He's said that when he's sitting in the pocket is when he's taken some of the bigger hits, with the exception of when he slides and gets hit [late]. That's probably the only time you've seen him really get hit."

Figuring the Eagles

— The Eagles blitzed Eli Manning just once in 47 pass plays last week. Jim Schwartz sent six rushers after him on a third-and-5 play late in the first quarter, which resulted in an incompletion. Early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Nigel Bradham rushed Manning, but defensive end Michael Bennett dropped into coverage. Bradham recorded one of the Eagles' four sacks on that play. In the Eagles' five games against Manning and the Giants since Schwartz became the team's defensive coordinator in 2016, they have  blitzed Manning just 19 times on 252 pass plays (7.5 percent).

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— In last year's 28-23 win over Carolina, the Eagles blitzed Cam Newton on 11 of 54 pass plays, including eight times with six or more rushers. The blitzes were successful. Newton was 4-for-11 for 22 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and no sacks when the Eagles blitzed.

— The Eagles have given up just one touchdown pass to a tight end or running back in the first six games (Bucs tight end O.J. Howard in Week 2). They gave up nine last year.

— Carson Wentz had four rushing first downs in his four starts this season. He had 26 in 13 starts last season, which was the sixth-most among NFL quarterbacks. His 26 first downs were the second-most by an Eagle. LeGarrette Blount had a team-high 30.

— Wentz attempted 16 passes of 20 yards or more in his four starts. He  completed seven for 268 yards and two touchdowns – a 56-yard score to Jordan Matthews against Tennessee and a 13-yard TD to Alshon Jeffery against the Giants (caught seven yards deep in the end zone). Twelve of Wentz's 16 attempts of 20-plus yards have been to Jeffery (7) and Nelson Agholor (5). They have caught just three of them.

Key number


The percentage of third-downs of 6yards or more that Cam Newton and the Panthers have converted this season. That's the sixth-lowest in the NFL. Newton has a 20.4 passer rating on third-and-6 or more, including a 52.4 completion percentage, two interceptions, and three sacks (in 24 pass plays). The Panthers are 21st overall in third-down efficiency (37.9 percent).