All offseason, the expectation was that the Eagles offense, at least through the air, would revolve around the tight ends. After the team signed James Casey in free agency and used their early second-round pick to select Stanford's Zach Ertz, the prevailing perception was that Chip Kelly would make those two, along with Brent Celek, the focal point of the offense's game plan.
Through the first 11 games of the season, that was not really the case. Celek ranked fourth on the team in receiving yards and fifth in receptions, while Ertz, naturally, ranked fifth in receiving yards and fourth in receptions.
On Sunday, though, the tight ends took center stage offensively, from the first possession to the last. After a Trent Cole forced fumble gifted the Eagles offense the ball on the Cardinals' 25-yard-line for their first possession, Nick Foles and Kelly made no secret of the matchups they hoped to exploit on the afternoon. On the four-play touchdown drive, Foles targeted either Celek or Ertz on every play, including a six-yard touchdown pass to Ertz on a well-designed misdirection play that would be seen once more on the afternoon.
When all was said and done in the Eagles' 24-21 victory, Ertz and Celek would combine for 97 yards on nine catches (on 12 targets) and three touchdowns.
"We thought we would be used a little more this game, in particular the way they played their defense," said Ertz after the game. "They put a lot of safeties on us, man-to-man coverage, and we think that against any safety we can win and get open. Fortunately, Nick made some great throws today.
"We want to make plays when we have opportunities and fortunately we had our name and number called very often this game. Brent played a heck of a game, not only in the passing game but in the blocking game as well. I think he doesn't get enough credit for that."
The key to the advantageous matchup for the Eagles tight ends on Sunday was a Cardinals secondary stacked at the cornerback position. Instead of forcing the issue on the likes of Patrick Peterson, Kelly and co. chose to focus on testing the Cardinals safeties and linebackers in coverage.
"We thought they have got some really good corners, starting with Peterson," Kelly said. "So, trying to get matched up on some safeties and some linebackers … Just thought we had some plays in there to the tight ends, get them in base personnel and then try to take advantage of that and those guys did.
"Those guys contributed and we feel like we have three that are talented and when the matchups present themselves, we can exploit it."
Celek's second-quarter touchdown came on a shallow cross from the 1-yard-line that left him wide open for Foles. Ertz's second touchdown, the third of three tight end visits to the end zone, was perhaps the most impressive of the three as Ertz beat his defender on a corner-post as Foles made what Ertz called "a heck of a throw."
As his rookie season continues to unfold, the 23-year-old Ertz is beginning to emerge as a serious weapon for the Eagles.
"I think Zach's getting better and better each week," said Kelly. "He came off a break, obviously if you're a rookie, this season's a lot different than the college season. You have four preseason games which you don't have and we've played 12 games, so he's got 16 games underneath his belt. But I thought he came back after the break with real fresh legs, rejuvenated, had a good week at prepping and was excited to see it show up on the field today and I thought he had some big catches for us today."
"He's a great player," Celek said. "He's going to continue to get better. Every game you just see him improve, improve, improve. He's going to be a great player in this league for a long time."
Celek, of course, is no slouch himself. His four receiving touchdowns are third on the team and, as Ertz mentioned, Celek's contributions as a blocker often go unnoticed. Often protective of his position mates, Celek seemed to almost take offense when asked about the big day for the tight ends.
"We're an integral part of this offense," he said. "Coming into this game, we knew we were going to have to make some plays to help our team this week. We were able to do that, which is good. It may be different next week."
And sometimes, those game-winning plays can come without even touching the ball. Needing one more first down to salt the game away on a 3rd-and-4 from the Cardinals' 9-yard-line, Kelly called the same play that resulted in the opening touchdown. On the play, Foles fakes a pitch to LeSean McCoy to his left before rolling right and searching for two options. The first read is Ertz, which resulted in the first-quarter touchdown.
The second, safer, read is Casey, who peels off into the flat after blocking at the beginning of the play. But on this play, Casey was unable to make it to the flat after he was held by Matt Shaugnessy of the Cardinals. Much to his dismay, Shaugnessy was flagged for the infraction, which resulted in a game-winning first down for the Eagles.
"They held the crap out of (Casey)," said Kelly. "It was a great call."
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