When Trey Burton became healthy enough to return for the Eagles’ second game of the season after missing the opener, it was bittersweet.
Sure, he was getting back on the field, but he wouldn’t be joined by fellow tight end Zach Ertz, who suffered a first rib displacement.
“I wish all three of us could be out there,” Burton said before Week 2. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get that somewhere during the season.”
Burton will get his wish this weekend.
Thanks to the extra time the bye week provided, Ertz has completely recovered from his injury and will play Sunday against the Lions. So will Brent Celek. So will Burton. This will be the first time all year the Eagles will have their three tight ends healthy.
And with all due respect to Matt Tobin, who filled in as a tight end on a few snaps, this will be the first time the Eagles will get a chance to show off their three-tight end set, which they worked on extensively during training camp.
“The more tight ends, the better, in my opinion,” Celek said with a smile. “It’s great to just have the whole crew out there. We’ve worked so hard to be able to play with three tight ends. And obviously up until this point we’ve only had two going into each game. It’ll be nice. It’ll be fun, all of us going out there together.”
It’ll be a good week to get all three back, too. This season, the Lions have given up 22 catches for 247 yards and six touchdowns to opposing tight ends. They’ve given up a touchdown to a tight end in all four games this season. And they have given up 18 touchdowns to tight ends in their last 20 games, according to DraftKings’ Adam Levitan.
Meanwhile, according to CSNPhilly.com's Reuben Frank, the Eagles are the only team in the league to have three tight ends with 50-plus receiving yards.
Without having all three natural tight ends active, Tobin played 37 snaps (17 percent) in the first three games, which is a pretty high number to be in 13 personnel (three tight ends, one running back) given that one of them was playing out of position.
For Tobin, it was an adjustment to a new position and it basically gave the Eagles an extra tackle on either the right or left side of the line. While Tobin was forced to report as an eligible receiver on these plays because he has an ineligible number, he wasn’t much of a threat to catch the ball. Teams knew he was staying in to block.
Ertz, Celek and Burton are true dual threats.
“This way, it kind of gets back to what I envisioned us being early in the season,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Obviously in training camp, with three tight ends. I love using all three of our guys. … Looking forward to this week and hopefully future weeks with those three guys.”
Having three dual-threat tight ends can create a mismatch problem for defenses. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said it could create extra gaps in the run game and motioning players could allow them to see how a defense responds to those shifts.
The first question for a defense is what personnel to put on the field against the three-tight end set.
“Yeah, it's tough to go nickel (package) against three tight ends,” Ertz said. “Most teams go base or possibly even bigger packages. And you have the ability to kind of spread [Burton] and I out. If you have three really good tight ends who can do both, which in our opinion we can, I think you'd have to ask (defensive coordinator Jim) Schwartz how he would game plan for it, but in our eyes, I think it presents a lot of problems.”
Celek said he isn’t sure how defenses will counteract the three-tight end set because they haven’t really done it before. While he thinks the team had the talent to do it in the past, when it had multi-dimensional player James Casey, it didn’t.
Over the last three years, under Chip Kelly from 2013-15, the Eagles had three tight ends on the field for just 57 total plays — or 1.66 percent.
Using three tight ends now not only creates matchup problems for defenses, but it’s also a way to make up for a receiving corps that leaves something to be desired.
“I don’t really know if a lot of other teams just don’t really use the three-tight end sets or just they don’t have the personnel for it,” Celek said. “But it’s fun being in the room with these guys because we all wish the best for each other and we’re always pushing each other. It’s a fun group to be around.”