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Eagles Tight Ends: Stacking the Deck

5 August 2019 Eagles News Opinion


We have all had those nights where it seems like the deck is stacked against you. The dealer finesses a 6 just when you thought you had him boxed in on 15. Your opponent dumps off a screen pass to counter your perfectly timed blitz. You play the percentages, put yourself in the best position, and hope it pays off in the outcome. There will be nights that no matter what you try, it’s just not in the cards.

Doug Pederson gave many defensive coordinators the same feeling over the last two seasons. The chess match in the NFL is fascinating. Offenses look to spread defenses out and get their skill position players in space. Defenses counter by getting smaller and quicker personnel on the field. Teams are spending more time outside of their base defense with five or more defensive backs on the field.

As defenses get smaller, we see coaches like Doug Pederson, Kyle Shanahan, Bill Belichick, and Bill O’Brien taking stock in getting bigger bodies on the field. Belichick and Shannahan prefer to 21 personnel, where Pederson and O’Brien prefer 12. The aim is the same whether you are replacing a wide receiver with a second tight end or a fullback. Force the defense into conflict.

The defense has to decide how to account for the second TE. Historically, teams would counter 12 personnel with base defense and keep a third linebacker on the field to protect themselves against the run. The second tight end creates an eighth gap that forces the defense to bring a safety into the box. This gives the offense the advantage in the passing game as they can stretch the seams vertically, putting the single high safety in conflict.

If the defense takes the third linebacker off the field and counter with nickel? The offense now has the advantage in the running game where your nickel corner and safeties will have to shed 250 lb tight ends in the run fits. Defenses have countered with “big nickel” by replacing the nickel corner with a third safety to mitigate the advantage. Regardless, the advantage will still be significant, especially if you have highly athletic tight ends as the Eagles do.

THE CHEAT CODE

Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert are a cheat code for Doug Pederson. It leaves defensive coordinators trying to figure out how to cover Ertz & Goedert without being vulnerable to the run. Pederson identified this advantage and capitalized in a big way last season. The Eagles used 12 personnel 36% of the time (19% higher than the NFL average) and it was their most successful formation.

With Goedert’s rookie season behind him, expect Pederson to continue to stack the deck in his favor by implementing even more multiple tight end sets this season. Pederson remains one step ahead of the NFL. As defenses sacrifice size for coverage and try to compensate by playing fast, the Eagles use play-action to freeze defenders and eliminate their ability to be over aggressive against the run.

 

The NFL is a copy-cat league. As more teams use 12 personnel, defenses will become more familiar and successful defending it. Ultimately, it’s not the formation that allows Pederson to stack the deck in his favor. It is the actual personnel. The Eagles have the most athletic set of tight ends in the NFL and defending them will require some very special players on the defensive side of the ball. Very few teams have that luxury. The question becomes, will Pederson expand his utilization of multiple tight ends to incorporate more 13 personnel? Do they have the talent to do so? Let’s look at the Eagles tight end group in training camp and access their options.

Zach Ertz – The Eagles have one of the NFL’s premier tight ends entering his prime. At 28, Ertz is coming off a record-setting season where he racked up 116 receptions and 1,163 yards. His athletic ability not only creates matchup problems for opposing defenses but gives Pederson the flexibility to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally with his tight end. According to SharpFootball, Ertz was the Eagles most successful target on 2nd and 3rd downs plays were they needed 8+ yards for a first down. Eagles QB’s amassed a 110 passer rating when targeting Ertz in the deep right part of the field. The trend continued in the red zone where 17 of his 25 red-zone targets were from outside of the 10-yard line. Defenses have to account for Ertz in every part of the field and that will be increasingly more difficult this season with the additional weapons the Eagles added on offense.

Dallas Goedert – One of those weapons shares the same position as Ertz, and that’s Dallas Goedert. The 6’5″ 256 lb. tight end enters his second season primed to make the sophomore jump. Goedert flashed his playmaking ability during his rookie campaign, including a touchdown in the Eagles playoff win at Chicago against the top-ranked defense in the NFL. It’s the South Dakota product’s blocking that makes him even more valuable to a team salivating at the option of playing more two-tight end sets in 2019. Goedert was on the field for 48% of the plays in the regular season last year. However, his snap rate increased to 60% over the last 4 weeks. All signs are pointing towards that number continuing to climb in 2019.

Richard Rodgers – The former Packer’s first season with the Eagles was a wash. A knee injury forced him to IR for the first 10 weeks and he only saw 45 snaps over the rest of the way. Rodgers’s biggest impact this season will be on special teams, but he has the tools to contribute offensively. He is an effective blocker and has proven to be a solid receiving option when given the targets. In 2015, Rodgers racked up over 500 yards and 8 TDs with a respectable 68% catch rate. He won’t command targets in Philadelphia, but he is a reliable option if called upon.

Joshua Perkins – The converted wideout is looking to beat out Rodgers for the 3rd TE spot. Forcing Pederson to keep 4 TEs on the roster may be the most likely path to the Eagles 53. Perkins had a decent game last season in Week 2 when Nick Foles dialed his number 6 times. He responded with a 4 reception 57-yard performance. Perkins is more of a specialized receiving option, who can line up split wide or in the slot. It’s not typical teams carry four tight ends, but the Eagles use the position more than most. He would provide a ton of depth and flexibility at a position that will be a bigger focus of the offense this season.

William Tye – Tye signed with the Eagles practice squad in mid-November last season. After showing some promise his rookie year with the Giants, he could not carve out a role on an NFL roster since. Tye will give the Eagles some depth in camp but is very unlikely to crack the 53 man roster.

Alex Ellis – The Eagles signed Ellis on Friday, who is primarily a blocker. Ellis appeared in a few games for the Chiefs last season, which is a few more games than we expect him to play in Philadelphia.

THE LINCHPINS

As Pederson prepares his roster for this season, there won’t be any surprises with the tight end group. The decision is about the numbers, not the names. Will they carry a fourth tight end this season and look to stack the deck even further? It’s possible Joshua Perkins can supplant Richard Rodgers as the third tight end, but it’s unlikely. Rodgers’s ability as a run blocker and a receiver makes him a better fit if Pederson increases the Eagles three tight end packages. Perkins would definitely provide depth behind Rodgers, and his athleticism can create mismatches. If Perkins makes the roster, it’s a clear sign that the position will be an even bigger staple of the Eagles’ offense this season.

The tight ends are the linchpins to this offense. Doug Pederson has done a tremendous job of leveraging his experience as a quarterback in his play design. Not only will Ertz and Goedert give defenses nightmares, but 12 personnel allows the quarterback to identify coverages pre-snap. The versatility and athleticism of the tight end group is an advantage before the play even starts. By using motion, splitting them out wide or moving them back inline, the Eagles can force the defenders into tipping their hand by their reactions. The beauty of it all is that the Eagles have a tremendous talent in Carson Wentz to capitalize. The combination of Pederson’s play design and Carson’s weapons are a winning hand. It’s just a matter of how much the Eagles will stack the deck.

 

Photo credit : Steven Ryan/Getty Images


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