Eagles

Zach Ertz 'a complete tight end' with much improved run blocking

It's a play Zach Ertz wouldn't have made five years ago.

Heck, as Ertz says, it's a play Ertz wouldn't have had a chance to make five years ago.

"I probably wouldn't have even been in the game five years ago if it was a running play," he said with a chuckle.

Ertz has spoken for years about trying to become a complete tight end. We know he can run and catch, but so far this year, he's shown how far he's come as a blocker.

It was Ertz who sprung LeGarrette Blount on his record-setting 68-yard run that set up a critical fourth-quarter touchdown in the Eagles' 26-24 win over the Chargers Sunday.

It was one of several big blocks by Ertz that helped the Eagles rush for 214 yards as they improved to 3-1.

Ertz leads all NFL tight ends with 26 catches for 326 yards, but he's always been a big-time receiver. It's his blocking that has been truly eye-opening.

“He’s grown a lot in that aspect of his game since he came to us five years ago," said tight ends coach Justin Peelle, who Chip Kelly brought in back in 2013, the same year the Eagles drafted Ertz. "It’s a credit to him because he’s worked so hard on it.

"He takes pride in it. He studies it, watches film, understands, 'What do we do here? How should we attack it? What's my assignment here?' He’s really worked at it.

"He wants to be a complete tight end. That’s just who he is. Zach has got an incredible drive. He wants to be the best, that’s his drive and it’s genuine. That's one part of his game he’s known he’s had to work on, and he’s attacked it, and I give him a lot of credit for that."

It's easy to measure the improvements Ertz has made as a receiver.

He's gone from a guy who backed up Brent Celek his first couple years in the league to a guy who's putting up some historic numbers as a pass-catching tight end.

It's much harder to gauge his progress as a blocker. You have to really watch closely. But Ertz, who was rarely asked to block at Stanford and early on here, has made remarkable progress on the line of scrimmage.

"I don’t want to be viewed as a weakness in any area," Ertz said. "I don’t want to be viewed as a weakness in the pass game, and I definitely don’t want to be viewed as a weakness in the run game. So it’s a little bit of pride kind of thing.

"You hear certain things, 'We've got to take him out,' on certain plays early in my career and it's just something I’ve taken to heart, working extremely hard at. I take a lot of pride in being a complete tight end."

Ertz couldn't have a better teammate to learn from than Celek, who has been one of the NFL's top blocking tight ends for 11 years now — and was once a pretty darn good receiving tight end as well.

"He's just worked really hard at it," Celek said. "I don't think he had to do it in college. And then coming to the NFL, when you haven't done it in college a lot, it's a tough transition.

"Since Day 1 when he got here, he's worked on becoming a better blocker. He's going to continue to get better and better as time goes on."

As recently as two years ago, Celek was still the full-time starter and Ertz played mainly in passing situations.

In his five NFL seasons, Ertz's snaps have increased from 41 percent as a rookie in 2013 to 50 percent in 2014, then 68 and 75 percent the last two years and 86 percent this year. 

The more you can do, the more you're going to play.

“I’ve seen him really evolve in practice," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "He takes practice real seriously. We go against guys — Steven Means is a beast out there and every day in practice he brings it. I think he’s taking pride in getting better in the run game.

"He’s totally different than what he was a few years ago. You saw him Sunday, shoot, he de-cleated that one guy (Joey Bosa)."

Ertz said he's gained an understanding of leverage and technique in the blocking game. He's certainly not the only reason the Eagles are third in the NFL running the ball, but his progress as a blocker hasn't hurt.

"If I’m bad at my technique, I don’t have a fighting chance," he said. "Because those guys are always going to be bigger than me and stronger than me."

Peelle, who spent 10 years in the NFL, said a lot has gone into making Ertz a better blocker. It's equal parts strength, technique and just understanding the offense.

“I think he’s gotten stronger since he’s gotten into the league, just because he’s matured," Peelle said. "His footwork has gotten better, his hand placement has gotten better, bringing his hips through the contact, those are things he knows he consistently has to work on, and he does.

"And then his understanding of (the offense). When the defensive end or the linebacker is here, this is what’s going to happen because this is what we’re doing. Zach’s an extremely smart player but that just takes some time to understand how to do it. It’s not just, ‘I’m just going to block the defensive end.’ It’s, ‘I’m going to block the defensive end, and how’s he going to react,' or, 'If he’s here, what are you going to do?'

"We spend a lot of time on it during the week, just as much time as we study DB’s and linebackers and coverage and what they’re going to do and how we’re going to attack a certain route. He’s a very smart player and once he started to figure that stuff out, it’s really shown up on the field."

Improved blocking means Ertz rarely leaves the field. He's averaging 64 of 74 snaps per game so far this year.

He's also emerged as Carson Wentz's favorite target. Ertz is third in the NFL in receptions and fifth in receiving yards among all players. His 273 catches and 3,166 yards are both seventh-most in NFL history by a tight end in his first 65 career games.

"We know Zach is an elite receiver at that position," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "Zach can put up numbers with the best of any tight ends really. I haven't been around too many guys that run routes like him.

"But (there’s) really kind of an emphasis on being the complete player because there's not a whole lot of tight ends that can run routes the way he runs and be productive blocking at the line of scrimmage.

"Zach's blocked really well this year. He's really improved. He’s been physical, and a lot of that is just a mindset — being physical — and to his credit, he's done a good job."

Ertz, now 26, has gotten stronger, and that's shown up not just with his blocking but with his yards after the catch. We've seen him break more tackles than in past years and really shed the reputation of being a finesse player.

“This offseason I kind of went back to the basics, went back to Stanford and trained there all summer, went back to the same strength staff that I had in college and really dedicated myself to getting my body healthy," he said.

"Obviously, the previous two years I had two freak injuries that I wanted to avoid this year."

Ertz is off to the best start of his career — by far. His best previous first month was 13 catches in 2014 — exactly half of his current total.

The only players in franchise history with more receptions after four games are Harold Jackson, who had 28 in 1972, and Terrell Owens, who had 32 in 2005.

It's too early to start talking Pro Bowl, but …

"He enjoys ball," Peelle said. "He enjoys everything about it. He enjoys working at it. He embraces the work. He embraces practice. He likes the challenge of getting better. And once you spend some time with him, you realize it’s genuine.

"I think people understand how smart he is and his natural athletic ability, but being around him you realize it’s a genuine love for the game and the drive to be great, to be the best."

Ertz could have been content to catch 75 passes for 850 yards a year for a decade and call it a career. And he would have gone down as the greatest tight end in Eagles' history.

But he wanted more. And being the best for a tight end means more than just catching the football.

“Blocking is something that definitely doesn’t come naturally to me," Ertz said. "But … I think we’ve definitely made strides. I don’t think I’ll ever be a finished product in that regard. It’s something I’ll have to continually work on throughout my entire career."