Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends

Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends
Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

Be it fate or happenstance, the Philadelphia Eagles have again found themselves quarterbacked by Nick Foles in a postseason matchup against an NFC South team in the divisional round. Last year's run featured a much healthier Philadelphia team as home favorites against the Atlanta Falcons instead of this year's visiting underdogs to the New Orleans Saints, but the Eagles are still equipped to advance through the postseason this time around. The Eagles' particular brand of offense possesses the right concoction of weapons that can bludgeon a Saints defense that has been on the rise.

Every quality offense has a defined identity, be that the wide-open, air-it-out stylings of the Kansas City Chiefs or the matchup-specific game-planning of the New England Patriots. A focus on tight ends, specifically out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), has become the lifeblood of the Eagles offense over the past two months. Zach Ertz is a known commodity and consistent Pro Bowler, but the offseason addition of second-round pick Dallas Goedert transitioned the Eagles to more of a two-tight end offense as of late.

Goedert's usage increased over the course of the season and eventually landed the Eagles in second place across the entire league in 12 personnel usage. Goedert, similar to Ertz, is a multifaceted player who can block, play in-line, and flex out as a jumbo slot or wide receiver. Ertz is more often used as the pseudo receiver, but Goedert's flexibility to also play that role has given the Eagles endless personnel, formation, and motion combinations. The Eagles enjoy both Ertz and Goedert as pass-catching threats so much so that they were the most pass-happy team in the league out of 12 personnel at 36 percent.

The use of two tight ends is often a clear and immediate advantage in a league increasingly getting smaller on defense. The Saints, however, pose a unique roadblock to the Eagles' identity. Since Week 10, the Saints' defense holds the fourth-best success rate (39 percent) against passes out of 12 personnel, according to Sharp Football. Per DVOA, the Saints' defense also finished the regular season fourth-best in covering tight ends. Granted, they rank close to last against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, as well as running backs, but they have kept many tight ends at bay.

The difference with the Eagles in particular is how good both of their tight ends are. Most teams are lucky to boast one above-average pass catching tight end, much less two who can be moved all over the field.

In this shot of a third-and-8 situation, Ertz (green circle) has been motioned in from an out-wide position into the slot, while Goedert (gray circle) mans the right side of the formation from an in-line spot. With the ball on the right hash, Ertz will be given a ton of room to get open between the left hash and numbers as the wide receiver next to him runs a clear-out vertical route. A tight end of Ertz's finesse and route-running ability will win this matchup over a nickel defender far more often than not.

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The nickel defender grants Ertz a sizable cushion before the snap, then backpedals once the ball is live and gives Ertz even more room to work with. Considering Ertz is as much a threat to win down the seam as most receivers, that kind of respect from the nickel is fair, especially considering how he is playing the sticks on third-and-8. Unfortunately for the Texans defender, Ertz works the space with ease and breaks open right at the line to gain, giving Foles a clear window to convert the first down.

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Though it's not 12 personnel, this play features Goedert alone at the top of the screen against a cornerback. A 6-foot-5, 255-pound athletic phenom such as Goedert is an irrefutable mismatch for nearly every cornerback in the league, and he flashes that in this play. Goedert gets off the line and fights through the cornerback to his stem like a skilled wide receiver to give himself a free run down the seam. Though Goedert does not necessarily pull away from the cornerback, simply getting the vertical leverage is enough given his catch radius and large frame to box out the defensive back. Again, Foles is granted an easy window to a massive, mobile target against a much smaller defender.

Receiving threats of Ertz's and Goedert's caliber makes the Eagles' 12 personnel feel less rugged and clunky than two-tight end sets may traditionally seem. In terms of formation, their 12 personnel sets often look more like 10 or 11 personnel by alignment, except one or two of the "receivers" are considerably larger than a typical wideout without much drop-off in athleticism and ability to get open.

That said, the Eagles' more conventional 12 personnel looks can be just as deadly, and even serve to better open up their actual wide receivers to gain advantageous matchups. By keeping two tight ends on the field, the Eagles almost force teams to stay in heavier defensive personnel to defend the run, while also coaxing them into zone shells because their particular tight ends are nightmares in man coverage. It is a lose-lose even for good defenses.

On this play against the Rams, Ertz and Goedert both line up tight to the offensive line on the right side of the ball. Setting the strength of the formation to that side naturally forces the L.A. defense to match them with their linebackers' alignments. The formation also prods the defense into staying in a zone shell because they do not want one of their outside cornerbacks to follow the receivers to the left and leave the tight ends alone with linebackers and a safety; nor do they want that cornerback to cover a tight end man-to-man. In turn, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (in the slot) gets to match up against a nickel cornerback -- a particularly short cornerback in Nickell Robey-Coleman, at that. Reader, you know what happens next.

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Robey-Coleman is no match for a large, athletic Jeffery with that much space to cover. Robey-Coleman commits to capping Jeffery vertically due to the one-high coverage shell shaded toward the tight end side, which gives Jeffery an easy in-out move to get Robey-Coleman's head spinning and free himself near the sideline. While neither tight end was directly used, the gravitational pull they demand from defenses lends to opportunities for Jeffery and others to make plays.

The Saints' defense, while quietly improved, is going to give up plays to the Eagles' wide receivers and running backs. They have been shaky all season in defending outside the numbers as well as down the field, ranking as DVOA's worst defense against deep passes. Their solace has been in minimizing the impact of opposing tight ends, but an entirely different two-headed beast of Ertz and Goedert is plenty capable of flipping the script on the Saints.

If the Saints can not quell the Eagles' overpowering tight ends and 12 personnel sets, they will end up in a shootout. As shaky as the Saints' offense looked down the stretch of the regular season, a shootout just might give the Eagles a fighting chance to come out victorious in the Superdome.


5 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2019, 12:05am

1 Re: Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends

Thanks Derrik, looking forward to seeing how Doug Pederson deploys the 2 x TEs this week. I think Goedert is a player of great potential. He's a better blocker than Ertz (not a particularly hard task), and has enviable receiving skills already.

4 Re: Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends

His blocking skills are remarkable for a rookie TE.

His catching is good but his route running still leaves a bit to be desired. Mostly inexperience I believe. He should get better.
I think he found early that his playing time would increase quicker by increasing his blocking skills over route running.

Running routes he has to compete against Ertz who in truth isn't a tight end but just a big slot.

2 Re: Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends

The Saints have 1 elite CB in Lattimore & 1 elite LB in Davis (who has transformed their defense as much this season as Lattimore, who has regressed a bit this year, did last year). After that, there's a significant dropoff, but Anzalone has been much better than expected this season and particularly in coverage. Both him and Davis are fine with covering TEs.

The teams that have given the Saints fits this year have all had one thing in common - multiple elite WRs. It was the Vikings last year in the playoffs w/ Thielen & Diggs, the Bucs in Week 1 with Evans & Jackson, the Falcons with Julio & Ridley, and the Steelers with AB & JuJu. (Saints got extremely lucky with both the Steelers & Vikings missing the playoffs).

As for the Eagles, the reason their offense had no luck a few weeks ago, and the reason they're a welcome matchup for the Saints this weekend, is that they don't have one elite WR, let alone multiple. They have three good ones, but none of that trio will collapse the Saints defense the way that JuJu/Diggs/DJ/Ridley could do.

That said, if I'm the Eagles, I'd feel a lot better about challenging Eli Apple & PJ Williams with Jeffery & Tate rather than Anzalone with Goedert. In the first game, Jeffrey & Tate had decent success, whereas Agholor, Ertz & Goedert had a combined 2 catches on 8 targets for 15 yards.

5 Re: Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends

The eagles were force feeding their shiny new toy in Tate in the first game.
I think you will see a lot more production from Ertz and Godert.
Godert can probably be covered by a decent coverage LB at this point.

I don't think you can expect any LB in the league to cover ertz for more than a snap or 2.

I think the biggest problem will be Sproles. need a CB or twitchy safety to cover him. But if they leave the CB in to cover it gets audibled to a run and Godert pancakes said CB or safety.

3 Re: Film Room: Eagles' Tight Ends

Revisionist history on the Eagles, they were underdogs the entire postseason last year.

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