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Eagle Eye: Inside Zach Ertz's Breakout Season


Offensively, the story of the Eagles' season is without question the development and maturation of quarterback Carson Wentz, but don't discount the production from tight end Zach Ertz either. Fantasy football fans all over the world have waited for the "breakout" year from the former second-round pick. Ertz is (mostly) the same player he's always been, but the coaching staff is doing an outstanding job of putting him in position to be Wentz's primary target in the passing game.

Ertz ranks third in the NFL among tight ends with 43 catches - 29 of which have gone for first downs and six have resulted in touchdowns. Those six red zone touchdowns lead the league, as do his three touchdowns on third down. He's the Eagles' leading receiver on third down, catching 12 passes off 17 targets and moving the chains 10 times. He's Wentz's go-to receiver in have-to-have-it situations, and more often than not he has come through for his quarterback. With that in mind, let's take a look at how he's being used, and also some of the areas where we've seen growth from Ertz in 2017.

Shot 1 - One of the things the #Eagles have consistently done for Zach Ertz in the low red zone is get him isolated 1-on-1. Watch how these complementary routes open up a void, putting one DB on an island vs Ertz #Touchdown — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 14, 2017

Down in the red zone, the Eagles' coaching staff has been really creative with finding ways to isolate Ertz one-on-one or have him work into a void in coverage. Windows get increasingly tighter close to the goal line, so devising schemes to get someone matched up between the numbers in a relatively wide space is not easy to do. Here are three examples of the Eagles' coaches being able to do just that. With the use of multiple tight end sets, pre-snap shifts, motions, and an understanding of how opposing teams want to play defense, the Eagles attack the soft spots in the secondary and get Ertz into the red zone on a consistent basis.

Most of Ertz's production has come in the short and intermediate areas of the field, but a couple of his vertical plays have come via a formation known to many as a "YY" look, with two tight ends (who some refer to as the Y-receiver) to the closed side of the formation. This presents a quandary for the defense. There are more gaps to fill in the run game to one side of the field that must be accounted for, but when a pass catcher like Ertz is involved that threat can't be ignored either. The Eagles have used these kinds of formations throughout the year.

Shot 2 - The use of 'YY' formations with 2 TEs to one side has been very effective for the #Eagles, especially getting both TEs downfield. On play 1 they attack Cover 3, forcing CB to run with Celek and a LB to pick up Ertz, a matchup they'll take. Play 2 is great route vs SS — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 14, 2017

There are two examples of the "YY" formation here, and the first one against Los Angeles is my favorite. The Eagles line up with Ertz and Brent Celek to the right. This concept calls for Ertz to run right down the numbers, with Celek also going vertically as well, further outside along the sideline.

The beauty of that concept is that it's a win-win for the Eagles' offense against either man or zone. If the Chargers are in man coverage, Celek will have the advantage running to the sideline because the linebacker will have to work through the traffic created by Ertz on his vertical route. If the Chargers are in zone, which they are, then the cornerback will have to match up with Celek since he is the farthest receiver outside. That pits Ertz against a linebacker underneath, a matchup the Eagles will take every day. That's exactly what they get here, and on second-and-10 they get a 38-yard gain and a first down.

It's a similar idea on the next play, but this is really just a Double Post concept. Celek is lined up inside, with Ertz outside in the "YY" formation. Off play-action, Wentz drops back and delivers a perfect anticipation throw to Ertz, with the ball coming out of his hand before Ertz is out of his break. Focus on Ertz's route, however, and there is an area where the veteran tight end has really improved this year - as a route runner. He breaks outside to get the defender's hips turned, only to then cut back inside on the post route where there's no one in the middle of the field thanks to Celek. Ertz makes the catch for the first down. The Eagles run and pass out of these "YY" formations, and I'd expect to see more of them down the stretch.

Shot 3 - Ertz has faced a lot of man-to-man against safeties, and he's gotten a lot better at using his size while also working good technique to create separation. Has done a ton of work in the slot this year #Eagles — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 14, 2017

Ertz has always been a pretty good route runner as a tight end in the NFL, but this year I feel like he's taken a jump in that area of his game. He's much more crisp in and out of breaks, and he does a great job of setting defenders up mid-route to get their hips flipped before breaking in the opposite direction and putting them out of position. He's seen a ton of man coverage against safeties, and Ertz uses his technical prowess along with his size to outmuscle defenders through the route and finish at the catch point. With how much work he gets in the slot and with how much trust Wentz has in him, it's no wonder Ertz sees as many targets as he does when he gets a safety matched up against him on third down.

Looking back at Ertz's targets a year ago, I was interested to see if his usage has changed. One thing stood out in a big way, and that was how often he was targeted as the X-iso receiver.

The X-iso is the receiver lined up all by himself on the backside of a 3x1 set. In all of 2016, I charted Ertz with nine targets as an X-iso receiver, with six catches for 73 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.

This year? That number has skyrocketed.

Through eight games this year, Ertz has caught nine of 11 targets as the X-iso for 100 yards and a touchdown. That puts him on pace to potentially triple those numbers from a year ago.

Why is there a spike? I can't really give you a good answer. I'd be willing to bet, however, that the coaches felt more comfortable with Ertz out on an island in space. The veteran has come through with some big plays in the passing game, and has shown the ability to consistently win one-on-one.

Shot 4 - Zach Ertz caught 6 of 9 targets in 16 games last year as the 'X Iso' WR on the backside of 3x1 sets. Through 8 games this year? 9 catches on 11 targets for a TD. Coaches trust his ability to win 1-on-1 #FlyEaglesFly — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 14, 2017

On all of those plays, Ertz does a good job of creating separation, whether it's downfield with his route stem or early in the down with his release. He does a great job of "playing in the low post," bodying the defender and fending him off at the catch point for a contested grab. Ertz's physicality and technique from snap to finish have allowed him to win against safeties consistently in 2017.

Shot 5 - And Ertz isn't just beating linebackers and safeties, because he's showing the ability to beat corners as well. Here are two catches against Josh Norman and Marcus Peters in man coverage #Eagles — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 14, 2017

It's not just safeties and linebackers who Ertz is beating out in space because he's shown the ability to beat cornerbacks as well. Here are two examples of him beating Marcus Peters and Josh Norman, two of the biggest names in the league at the cornerback spot, in man-to-man coverage.

Ertz has been the go-to option in the Eagles' offense, and there are a lot of factors that led to that. He's improved as a route runner, the coaches are putting him in great position to make plays out in space as well as down in the red zone, and his trust level with Wentz has taken the next step. I'm excited to see what he's got in store for us down the stretch.

Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.

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