Eagles

Zach Ertz continues to produce despite unfair perception about toughness

Zach Ertz continues to produce despite unfair perception about toughness

Zach Ertz caught eight passes Sunday and put his head down and thundered forward for as many yards as he could pick up after all eight receptions.

And if that's not good enough for you?

If you still have your mind made up that Ertz is soft? Even after missing just two games last year with a torn pectoral muscle?

There's not much anybody can say or do to prove you wrong.

"You always want to be aggressive and be physical and be smart," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "But I've played with a lot of great players who will step out of bounds rather than take a hit when they know they've got the first down.

"I mean, great players. Barry Sanders? He never took a hit on the sidelines. No one ever called him a coward.

"Sometimes you have to be smart, too."

If you haven't been paying attention, Ertz has been a different player since the Cincinnati game last year, when fans jumped all over him for a play near the sideline where he appeared to avoid contact.

"I remember after that Cincinnati game, there were multiple times of him being aggressive," Reich said. "It's always a fine line. There is a time [and place]."

Even though Ertz has been one of the most productive tight ends in NFL history through four seasons, he's never really gained widespread appreciation among Eagles fans, some of whom would rather see a guy run into a brick wall without a helmet to prove his toughness than making a catch down the field and run out of bounds to protect his body.

Ertz has actually been both. Smart and physical.

"You've got to sometimes sacrifice your body and lay it out, but I've never questioned Zach in that regard," Reich said.

"Zach plays to win. Zach's a winner. He plays aggressive, he runs his routes aggressive, he's aggressive to the ball, and I've never thought anything other than that."

Ertz caught eight passes for 93 yards Sunday in the Eagles' win over the Redskins at FedEx Field. He was targeted eight times and caught all eight passes.

In his last 16 games, the equivalent of a full season, he now has 95 catches for 1,061 yards and four touchdowns.

Since opening day of last year, only Travis Kelce of the Chiefs, who the Eagles will see this weekend, has more catches among NFL tight ends than Ertz. Kelce has 90, Ertz 86.

"I thought we had a good start," Ertz said. "There's some stuff we can improve on, not only me and Carson (Wentz) but as an offense. We weren't 100 percent. But it was a good start.

"I thought there were plays I got covered I shouldn't have and plays I was open and he missed me, but all that matters are wins, and it's very rewarding to get off to a fast start."

Ertz's 255 career catches are eighth most in NFL history by a tight end through 62 games. His eight catches Sunday led all NFL tight ends on opening weekend, and his 93 yards were second most.

Ertz, who played with Nick Foles and Michael Vick as a rookie, Foles and Mark Sanchez in 2014, Sam Bradford in 2015 and Wentz last year, said the luxury of having Wentz back for a second year is huge.

"It's great to have the same quarterback going into another year," he said. "Obviously, it's one game and we're trying to stack them each week. [But] 8 for 8 is where you want to be, you can't get much better than that."

With the Eagles' outside speed, the middle of the field should be open all year for Ertz.

The franchise record is 90 catches by Brian Westbrook in 2007. Ertz needs to average 5½ receptions the rest of the year to break that.

Honestly, it'll be surprising if he doesn't (assuming he stays healthy).

"They connected and had pretty good chemistry pretty quickly and that's just growing," Reich said of Ertz and Wentz.

"I think that chemistry is growing as an offensive unit, but not just those two guys, but everyone knows Zach is a key playmaker for us and we count on him every week to do that."

Unselfishness at core of Eagles' balanced, lethal offense

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AP Images/USA Today Images

Unselfishness at core of Eagles' balanced, lethal offense

You look at the stats, and nothing jumps off the page. No running back on pace for 1,000 yards, no wide receiver on pace for 1,000 yards. Heck, even the all-world quarterback hasn't thrown for more than 211 yards in his last three games.

No 100-yard games by a wide out or tight end. Only one 100-yard game by a running back, and that was two months ago.

Four different guys have led the team in rushing, three different guys have led the team in receiving, 11 different guys have scored touchdowns.

Heck, in the win over Dallas Sunday night, the Eagles' longest catch wasn't by one of the speedy free agent wide receivers, and it wasn't by Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins or Zach Ertz. It was by rarely used 11th-year tight end Brent Celek, who turns 33 in January.

You want Pro Bowlers? This is not the offense for you. You want guys to score you a ton of fantasy points? This is definitely not the offense for you. 

You want a Super Bowl contender? Welcome to Philly, where head coach Doug Pederson has found a way to get a bunch of players used to being the guy to suppress their egos and do whatever's necessary to help the team.

LeGarrette Blount led the NFL in rushing touchdowns last year. Jay Ajayi was a Pro Bowler last year. Alshon Jeffery has been a Pro Bowler and was fifth in the NFC in receiving yards per game over the last four years. 

They're used to being stars. They like being stars. They get paid to be stars. And they've all put their egos aside to be part of something special.

Pederson's greatest accomplishment this year has been to get everybody on the roster to buy into the notion of setting aside personal goals to help the team win football games.

These are guys with big-money incentives and tremendous pride in their numbers. They want to be considered the best at what they do. And they want to put up numbers that land them that next big contract.

But Pederson has them all locked into something bigger, something greater. That game in Minnesota in 2 ½ months.

"The bottom line is winning the game," Pederson said. "Bottom line. I don't go into a game saying, ‘Jay, you've got to get 100 yards rushing. LeGarrette or Alshon, you've got to have 100 yards receiving.’ 

"It doesn't work that way. We don't design the offensive plays to work that way. If it happens, great. Alshon a couple weeks ago had an opportunity to be our first 100-yard receiver this year.

"It's just the guys just want to win, and it doesn't matter who's hot in the game. Our quarterback is so prepared and well-prepared, knowing exactly where to go with the ball in the passing situations. We ask him to do so much in the run game. And it's all part of the process, and these guys have bought in 100 percent, and they prepare that way. 

"You see it on game day. They're just all making plays and they're all contributing right now."

The Eagles are an NFL-best 9-1, and a win at home Sunday against the lowly Bears gives them nine straight wins, which would tie a franchise record set in 1960 and matched in 2003.

Their last four wins have all been by double digits, they're averaging 32 points per game, and they're on pace to score the 15th-most points in NFL history.

And they're doing it without anybody on pace for a 1,000-yard season and with just one 100-yard game by a receiver or running back.

Every coach talks about unselfishness, but Pederson genuinely has these guys living it and breathing it.

Why does it work?

"Because we all want to win," Blount said.

And it works because the quarterback is the most unselfish guy of all and legitimately doesn't care about anything other than getting a win.

"Winning is contagious, and the guys feed off of that," Pederson said. "And so it really doesn't matter who makes the play. It's just at the end of the day, just find a way to win the game."

Eagles DE Derek Barnett wreaking havoc as sacks starting to pile up

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USA Today Images

Eagles DE Derek Barnett wreaking havoc as sacks starting to pile up

With each passing game, it's starting to become clearer and clearer why the Eagles used their first-round pick on Derek Barnett. 

The rookie defensive end is beginning to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. 

"This guy is very disruptive, explosive," head coach Doug Pederson said. "He's another one of those unselfish guys. He just wants to win and do whatever he can to help the team win."

Barnett, the 14th overall pick in April's draft, had two sacks and a forced fumble in the Eagles' 37-9 win Sunday night over the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. 

In addition to Barnett's two sacks (he forced a fumble on one), he also applied pressure and hit quarterback Dak Prescott on two of his three interceptions. 

It seemed like Sunday was probably Barnett's best NFL game so far. The 21-year-old humbly didn't go along with that assessment. 

"I think I did some good things, but I need to do a better job in the run game," Barnett said. "I didn't do that well in the run game. At the end of the day, we won. That's all that matters. We got a victory and let's all go back to Philly." 

After failing to record a sack in his first five NFL games, Barnett now has 4.5 in his last five games. He is second among all NFL rookies in sacks this season. 

He's already eighth on the Eagles' rookie sack list and could move up that list quickly. Two more sacks would put him third behind just Reggie White (13) and Corey Simon (9.5). 

Sacks sometimes come in bunches. 

"I just think they're coming now," Pederson said. "I think he's getting comfortable in the role. He's developing. He's understanding the game. He studies tackles, he studies his opponent. He's developed a couple of different moves. It's just his willingness. It just clicks for any player. They start to come. I love where he's at right now too." 

Even before the sacks started coming, Barnett was quietly getting pressure. Now, he's getting pressure and finishing the plays. 

Barnett played 51 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps Sunday and is closing on the 50 percent mark on the season. While he hasn't been widely talked about as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, he could make a case quickly if these numbers keep piling up. 

More importantly, he could offer the Eagles a dangerous pass-rusher as they make their way down the stretch and into the playoffs.

And he's doing it with the same traits that made him attractive to the Eagles in the first place. 

Remember just after he was drafted, when vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas raved about Barnett's "excellent" ankle flexion? 

Well, check out Barnett's bend on his fourth-quarter strip sack: 


 

He bent around the left tackle and came at Prescott horizontally. 

He did it earlier in the game on the Rodney McLeod interception: 

 

And remember how much everyone praised his high motor and compete level? 

Check out his first-half sack. He willed his way to a sack and wouldn't let Prescott escape. 

Sunday was Barnett's second career two-sack game; they came less than a month apart. And it looks like there are plenty more sacks in his future. 

"They're starting to come in slowly but surely," Barnett said. "Everybody says to pass rush, you have to keep on rushing. You can't get down. You're going to be in your little slumps and stuff. You have to keep on grinding through it. It's eventually going to break."