All-22: The Emergence Of Zach Ertz
With 5:15 left in the third quarter of Monday night’s game against the Colts, the Eagles needed someone to step up and make a play.
They were trailing 20-6 and faced a 3rd-and-11 from their own 43. They had a good hunch of what the Colts were going to do on defense: rush three and drop eight.
Zach Ertz lined up in the slot. He would run an over route downfield to the opposite hash mark.
Indy’s deep defenders essentially dropped to the first-down marker. Ertz was dealing with two deep safeties, but there was space in between them in the middle of the field.
He climbed past the underneath defenders, ran through the first-down marker and got his head around.
Because the Colts were only rushing three, Nick Foles had a clean pocket and fired a pass off to Ertz. The result was a 21-yard catch and a first down. Three plays later, LeSean McCoy got in the end zone from 1 yard out, and suddenly the Eagles found themselves in a one-possession game.
“It was two high safeties, so my job was just to kind of run down the middle,” Ertz said. “Nick made a heck of a throw. I was able to just go up and high-point the ball, and I was able to get down before the safety made a play on it. It was a big play in the game.”
High-pointing the ball is something we’ve seen Ertz do consistently. At 6-5, he’s made a habit of getting his hands up and using his size to his advantage.
Ertz, who has a basketball background, drew a comparison between the two sports.
“I think it has a lot to do with basketball, just going up for the rebound,” he said. “It’s kind of like that. I want to get open in the middle of the field. That’s my job, and that’s my role for the team. I want to make the most out of it.”
After the grab, Ertz tucked the ball away in a hurry and prepared for contact.
“I’m going to get up [in the air] and either get hit or try to avoid the hit,” he said. “I can’t control that. All my focus is on the ball. Whatever happens, happens.”
Said Foles: “Zach has been doing a great job since he got here, really getting open, running good routes. He’s a big target, and he can make the catch any which way. If it’s at his shoelaces, he’s going to make the catch. …It was definitely a big play in the game.”
The 21-yard grab might not have even been Ertz’s biggest catch of the game. With 1:56 left and the score tied, the Eagles’ offense took over at its own 40.
Ertz once again set up in the slot. This time he was running a corner route with Riley Cooper running a post.
The Colts were in Cover-1, which is often the preferred defense against the Eagles. It’s man coverage across the board with a single high safety. Here, they used a linebacker to match up with Ertz.
Against single-high coverages, offenses want to throw away from the middle of the field. You can see in the above image that Ertz gets an outside release. That is key because he wants to be able to push away from the defender towards the sideline.
“First you’ve gotta attack his leverage, you’ve gotta set the angle high,” Ertz said, describing the corner route. “Let the quarterback make the right throw, whether it’s flattening it out or keeping it high.”
We texted our old friend Coach Flinn for some of the finer teaching points with the corner route:
* Fast vertical stem.
* On your fourth inside step, slam the inside foot into the ground (usually at 10-12 yards).
* Always take a high angle. You can adjust down if need be. But if your route is too flat, you can’t then adjust to a higher angle.
* Catch the ball at eye level or higher.
Ertz took a nice, high angle, separating from the linebacker. The high safety is not in position to make a play on the ball.
“As soon as you get out of the break, you look up for the ball, and hopefully it’s in the air,” Ertz said.
That was a key here because Foles was under pressure. Normally the pass would be closer to the sideline, but because Ertz got his head around quickly, he was able to adjust and still make a play.
The result was a 24-yard grab. Cody Parkey kicked the game-winning field goal three plays later.
Earlier this summer, we broke down how the Eagles use the “snag” passing concept with tempo.
They broke out that combination in the first quarter. After a bubble screen to Jeremy Maclin picked up 15 yards, Chip Kelly made a tempo call. From the time the whistle blew signaling Maclin was out of bounds to the time Jason Kelce snapped the ball to Foles took about 18 seconds in real time.
On the play above, Ertz showed he could beat a linebacker in man coverage. On this play, he showed he could beat a safety.
Here’s what the snag concept looks like.
Against Cover 1, the corner route should be open. It’s just up to the No. 2 receiver (second from the sideline) to beat his defender.
Again, you can see that Ertz’s outside release pins the defender to his inside. He takes a high angle, and this time the ball is exactly where it’s supposed to be.
The result was a 24-yard gain.
Pretty much everyone who watched Ertz this summer was predicting a breakout year. And through two games, those outlooks seem on-point. He has seven catches on 10 targets for 163 yards. All seven grabs have netted first downs. Six of the seven have been for 20 yards or more. No one in the NFL has more 20+ grabs than Ertz so far.
His 23.3 yards per reception is also a league-high.
And these are not short passes that generate a lot of YAC. Ertz’s average catch has come 19 yards downfield.
He’s shown he can work the seams (five of his seven grabs have been inside the numbers). And against the Colts, Ertz showed he could beat man coverage. He beat a safety on two different occasions and a linebacker once.
“That guy’s unbelievable,” said Jason Peters. “He’s almost like another receiver at tight end. He can catch, he can run. It’s a mismatch problem for the ‘backers.”
I asked Peters who Ertz reminds him of.
“He kind of reminds me of a [Julius] Thomas, just a mismatch problem. He can run real good, athlete, and he causes mismatches for the linebackers.”
Two of Ertz’s seven catches have come when he’s an in-line tight end. Five have come when he’s set up in the slot.
A big question coming into the season was: Would the Eagles be able to hit on plays downfield without DeSean Jackson?
Through two games, they have 10 plays of 20+ yards in the passing game, second to only the Falcons. Ertz has been the biggest reason for that success.
“I just think there are a lot of matchup things when you have Zach,” Kelly said. “So if you do choose to play man, you have to man everybody. You can’t just man the two outside receivers. So if you do, I think our inside receivers, himself and the running backs coming out of the backfield become matchup problems too. So the quarterback always in man situations is trying to find his best matchup. I think he’s got some unique qualities that he’s tough for a linebacker to cover, but he’s also hard for a [defensive back] to cover because he’s 6-5. So there is kind of a catch-22 in terms of how you’re going to defend him.”
It’s only been two games, but Ertz is off to a hot start in what could eventually turn out to be a special season.