After the Eagles drafted Zach Ertz with their second-round pick back in April, Chip Kelly was asked if he could play three tight ends on the field at once.
“Yeah. You go like that,” he said, holding three fingers in the air. “And three tight ends go in the game. We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, if they go three linebackers, we spread them out and if they go DBs, we smash you. So, pick your poison.”
The joke at the time was on the reporters. No one thought to ask Kelly if he had planned to go with four tight end looks.
But that’s what we saw in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Panthers.
Technically, Clay Harbor is now practicing with the wide receivers, but at 6-3, 255, he has the body type of a tight end.
The Eagles first showed the 4-TE package on their second drive of the first quarter. The look is one you should probably get used to. We saw it several times last week vs. New England, and the Eagles scored a pair of touchdowns off of it (full breakdown here).
You can see it’s a double-stack look. Ertz and James Casey to the top of the screen; Harbor and Brent Celek at the bottom.
The decision-making process for the quarterback here is simple. He has the option to hand the ball off or throw a screen to either side, depending on the numbers. In the box, Nick Foles is looking for a 5-on-5 matchup to run the ball. And that’s exactly what he gets.
On the perimeter, you can see the tight ends set up for the screen. But with two safeties deep, the Eagles were facing 3-on-2 matchups out there. So Foles made the right call handing it off, and LeSean McCoy picked up the first down.
Even though the ball didn’t go to the perimeter, you can see the Eagles could potentially get a nice mismatch with a tight end blocking a cornerback.
“This offense, it’s new to us, but it’s tough to stop,” Harbor said in the locker room afterwards. “And we’ve all really, really just bought in and know that on any given play, there’s gonna be a mismatch somewhere. We’re gonna out-number the defense somewhere. So any given play, we twist it and make it our own. If they leave two defenders on the two receivers on some play, we’re gonna throw the ball out there. …If they put three defenders on two, then we’re gonna run the ball.”
On the very next play, the Eagles kept the same personnel on the field and pushed tempo. About 25 seconds elapsed from the time McCoy went down to the time they snapped the ball on the next play. The Panthers were unable to change personnel, meaning they were still in nickel (five defensive backs).
The Eagles had Ertz and Harbor split out to the right, while Celek and Casey set up next to left tackle Allen Barbre.
With the read-option, they leave the left defensive end unblocked. And the red box shows a 4-on-4 matchup. In reality, this is 5-on-4 in the Eagles’ favor because Todd Herremans is pulling to that side.
You can see that even with Foles in the game, the left defensive end stays at home in case he keeps the ball and runs.
Again, here you see the middle linebacker and the left defensive end (yellow arrows) guarding against the possibility of a Foles run. The Eagles do a great job on the left side of the line, and Jason Kelce seals his man off, creating a nice running lane up the middle.
But Eagles offensive linemen will tell you they’re never sure where McCoy’s going to take the football, and they don’t particularly care since he’s so talented. Here, he bounces it outside, gets a nice block from Herremans and then just lets his natural ability take over for a 21-yard gain.
“If they want to put some extra linebackers on the field, then we can spread ‘em out and pass,” Ertz said. “If they want to go nickel or dime, whatever personnel they want to be, if they put more corners on the field, then we’ll have that ability to run the ball. So at the end of the day, I think it’s just kind of like a chess match.”
The Eagles showed the 4-TE look with Mike Vick in the game also. Here, you see Emil Igwenagu joining Harbor, Casey and Ertz.
Again, we see that Vick has multiple options. He can hand the ball off to Polk, but instead he pulls it and drops back. Vick then does a great job of manipulating middle linebacker Luke Kuechly by looking at Casey. Kuechly comes up, creating space for Igwenagu behind him.
Vick delivered a laser, and Igwenagu made a nice catch for a 15-yard gain.
Kelly has made it clear from the get-go that he loves tight ends. His first offensive free-agent acquisition was Casey, and then there was the Ertz pick. Their versatility and the tempo allow the Eagles to create mismatches without subbing.
“The defense doesn’t know what to do,” Harbor explained. “If they’re gonna put all linebackers out there, they don’t know if we’re gonna go in tight and pound the ball or if we’re gonna spread out wide and throw the ball. If they bring in linebackers to guard us, we can all run like receivers. If they bring in defensive backs, we’re gonna get in tight, or we can still stay out wide and pound the ball. It’s really a chess match between the coaches there. And anything they do, we win.”