Too much Zach Ertz definitely isn’t the problem with the Eagles offense | Paul Domowitch
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz is on pace to break the NFL single-season record for receptions by a tight end. But some have suggested that Carson Wentz needs to spread the ball around more.
If the Eagles were 7-2 or 6-3 right now rather than a hanging-on-for-dear-life 4-5, people would be singing Zach Ertz's praises from the top of the Comcast Technology Center.
Instead, many are actually wondering whether the Pro Bowl tight end is one of the problems with the Eagles offense right now.
Ertz is having the best season of his career. Actually, he's having the best season – at least statistically – of any tight end in the history of the NFL.
Through nine games, he has 75 receptions for 789 yards and five touchdowns. That's a 133-catch, 1,403-yard pace. Both would shatter the league records for catches and receiving yards by a tight end.
He already has 42 receiving first downs, which is just four fewer than he had last year. His five red-zone touchdown catches are tied for the third most in the league, and his 10 receptions in the red zone are the second most in the league.
How is that a bad thing for the Eagles, you ask? Well, some wonder whether quarterback Carson Wentz is a little too dialed in on Ertz and needs to be spreading the ball around a little more.
In Sunday's 27-20 loss to the Cowboys, Wentz attempted 44 passes. Ertz was the target on 16 of them, including a critical fourth-and-7 completion late in the game in which Ertz was stopped a yard short of the first-down sticks by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath.
But Ertz caught 14 of the 16 passes thrown to him in the game for 145 yards and two touchdowns, and had eight first downs. So again, what's the problem?
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"I think you can get too dialed in on anybody within a game,'' Wentz admitted. "But at the end of the day, are we having success or not is kind of how you measure that.
"And what are the matchups that are presenting themselves? Everyone knows Zach's abilities out there. Everyone knows he's a tough cover for a corner or safety or whoever they want to put on him.
"We trust him to make plays and get open. And he's done a great job of that.''
There's no question the Eagles offense hasn't been as effective this season as it was last year. It is averaging a touchdown less a game than it did during their Super Bowl run.
Their touchdown percentage in the red zone has dropped from 65.5 last year, when they led the league in that category, to 55.9 this year (they're 17th).
The defense's inability to force turnovers – it has just seven takeaways in nine games – has forced the offense to repeatedly play on a long field. The Eagles are 25th in average drive start (26.7).
Ertz already has been targeted 100 times this season, which is just 12 short of his career high. In Wentz's seven starts, Ertz has been targeted on 77 of 269 pass attempts (28.6 percent).
That's a big percentage. But Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has targeted Julio Jones on 28.9 percent of his attempts. The Vikings' Kirk Cousins has targeted Adam Thielen on 28.4 percent of his. Ben Roethlisberger has targeted Antonio Brown 26.0 percent of the time.
Of those three, only Thielen has a better catch percentage (75.7) than Ertz (75.0).
Wentz and Ertz have developed a special chemistry that almost certainly is going to make them the most successful pass-catch combo in Eagles history before they hang up their cleats.
"We've been together now since I got here" in 2016,' Wentz said. "Zach is one of the smartest players I've played with.
"We're always trying to see things the way the other guy sees it. Talking through things. Even sending texts of plays or clips or how we want to see things like that.
"He's always in my ear about things. I'm always in his. That's been really good in developing the chemistry we have.''
They watch film together. They work on pass routes between practice periods. They are brothers in Christ and socialize off the field.
"They're always talking ball,'' tight ends coach Justin Peelle said. "They meet on their own. They watch film. At practice, I've had to tell them, 'All right, no more extracurricular [work] together between periods.' Because the two of them will just throw routes forever. It's obviously beneficial for us. It's been beneficial for them.''
Said Ertz: "Carson and I, we've talked about and have watched enough film together where we have an ability to react depending on what the defense gives you.
"We're going to have answers for everything they throw at us. Even when we're on the field between practice periods, we're out there talking about a route and running it.
"I think we both understand the timing aspect of football. That's probably the thing I've learned the most about what's important between a quarterback and a receiver. You're only able to accomplish that timing if you're with somebody over and over.
"He trusts that I'm going to get the job done regardless of whoever is covering me or regardless of whatever leverage someone has on me.''
I still remember my first conversation with Ertz after the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft.
He talked about wanting to be the best tight end in the game months before he caught his first NFL pass. Said that he wanted to eventually be mentioned in the same breath with 11-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten.
Well, if he catches 36 more passes from Wentz in the Eagles' final seven games, he'll get his wish. Witten's 110 receptions in 2012 is the single-season record for a tight end.
"Zach always is trying to get better,'' Peelle said. "One of his goals this year was to be better than he was last year. Every day at practice he's always working on getting better at something.''
Ertz had eight touchdown catches in the red zone last season. That was the third most in the league. He's already got five this season, including three in the last two games.
"He really understands defenses and can diagnose a defense right away,'' Peelle said. "And he has that ability to process where he sees something, and he can make the subtle route adjustment.''
Figuring the Eagles
–The Eagles defense has just one interception and three total takeaways in the last five games. Their seven takeaways this season are the third fewest in the league behind only the 49ers (5) and Bucs (6). The fewest takeaways by an Eagles defense since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 was 12 in Andy Reid's final season with the Eagles in 2012. That team finished 4-12.
–The Eagles are 13th in total offense this season. They are averaging 372.9 yards per game, which actually is 7.1 yards per game more than last year. But they're squandering too many of those yards. They're averaging just 5.90 points per 100 yards, which is the 10th lowest in the league. The combined record of the nine teams below them: 25-58. Last year, the Eagles averaged 7.80 points per 100 yards.
–The Eagles have had 22 touchdown drives. Just eight of them (36.4 percent) have been seven plays or fewer. Last year, 28 of their 47 TD drives (59.6%) were seven plays or fewer. The Eagles had nine TD drives last season that were three plays or fewer. So far this year: one.
–The Eagles have converted just 6 of 35 third downs of 10 yards or more this season. That's a 17.1 conversion rate, which is the 10th worst in the league. They converted 29.8 percent of their third-and-10-plus situations last year (20 of 67). Only the Chiefs and Patriots were better. Oddly, the Eagles' opponent Sunday, the Saints, who lead the league in scoring and are sixth in overall third down percentage, have converted just 12.5 percent of their third-and-10-plus situations this season.
–You know about the Eagles' slow starts this season. They've scored just 21 points in the first quarter. They've scored on their first possession just twice in nine games and have yet to put up any points on their second possession. They're averaging just 3.62 yards per play on their first possession. Then there are the Saints. They've scored touchdowns on their first possession in six of nine games. They've scored six times on their second possession (three TDs, three field goals). They've scored touchdowns on their first and second possessions in each of the last two games. And they're averaging 6.84 yards per play on their first possession.
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Scoring is way up in the league. Seven teams are averaging at least 28 points per game, headed by the Eagles' opponent Sunday, the Saints, who are averaging 36.7.
The Saints are first in scoring and tied for 23rd in points allowed. Andy Reid's 9-1 Chiefs are second in scoring (35.3) and tied for 16th in points allowed (24.0).
"I've been noticing this season, the emphasis isn't so much on improving your defense or figuring out how to stop teams, it's 'I need to outscore you. I need to put up points,''' said the former Eagles running back.
"When you look at Kansas City, their defense isn't very good. If they had some decent defensive players, they'd be in great shape because their offense puts so much pressure on opposing defenses, but also on opposing offense to score points.
"That means [their opponent] is in pass-set. It means they've got to throw the football. Because they know [Patrick] Mahomes and all of the other weapons Andy has on that team, they're going to get points. They're not going to get field goals. They're going to score touchdowns.''