Zach Ertz

Why this Eagles package looks built to give Bill Belichick's defense headaches

Why this Eagles package looks built to give Bill Belichick's defense headaches

FOXBORO — Typically the number 12 is one that elicits happy memories for football fans in New England. But those two digits arranged in that order could be what has Patriots supporters scattered throughout region ripping follicles from their skulls this weekend.

As things stand right now, the Patriots defense is looking at its second consecutive game where an opponent's offense has the ability to deploy a particularly annoying personnel package.

Against the Ravens in Week 9, it was a three tight end grouping that made an already-challenging Lamar Jackson-driven run scheme even more so. This week, the Patriots could have their hands full when they see Eagles 12 personnel packages — one back, two tight ends, two receivers — in Philadelphia.

The answer as to why is simple enough: A) No team runs more "12" than the Eagles with their tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and B) no team has had more trouble against "12" over the course of the last month than the Patriots.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the Eagles have used two tight ends on 40 percent of their plays this season, significantly more than the next heaviest "12" team (Houston, 33 percent). That number has seen a real uptick over Philly's last two games, wins over the Bills and Eagles, as they've gone with two tight ends on 58 percent of their snaps. 

"I think they play two tight ends more than any other team in the league," Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "Those two guys play a lot. It's usually Ertz in 11 personnel, but not always. Goedert plays in there a decent amount. Obviously they're both on the field when they go to 12.

"I would say they're interchangeable. They move guys around to different spots. I would say [Goedert] plays a little more tight end than Ertz does. But they both play it. They both can extend outside and in the slot. They play off each other ... they're versatile. They're obviously smart. They can do several different things and run the same play from different formations and different looks so it's the same but it doesn't really look the same to the defense."

While the Eagles haven't been tremendously successful with "12" over the last two weeks — they averaged 6.3 yards per pass attempt and 3.4 yards per carry against good defenses from Chicago and Buffalo — overall it's been productive for them. For the season, with "12," they've averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 4.2 yards per carry. Both of those numbers are better than what the Eagles have produced with "11," their other primary package (6.6 yards per attempt, 4.1 yards per carry).

Even with only reasonable success out of their two tight end packages lately, there are a couple of reasons the Eagles would make "12" a staple of their game plan on Sunday. 

First, their receiving group is one of the least productive in football. They recently signed veteran Jordan Matthews off the street to help a group that doesn't have a player in the NFL's top 50 of Pro Football Focus' yards per route run metric. Alshon Jefferey — who's "day-to-day" with an ankle injury, according to coach Doug Pederson — has been their most efficient receiver at No. 56 in the yards per route run category. Nelson Agholor is next at No. 80. Getting an extra tight end on the field to replace a wideout is, with this group of receivers, addition by subtraction. 

Second, the Patriots have had particular difficulty against teams that have used multiple tight ends lately. Going back to a Monday Night Football matchup with the Jets in Week 7, the Patriots have allowed a staggering 86 percent success rate, worst in football, in the 21 plays they've seen 12 personnel. In that time, they're allowing a 142.4 passer rating, 9.2 yards per pass attempt and 6.7 yards per carry against those looks. 

That's a relatively small sample size, but it includes plays like Demetrius Harris' 21-yard touchdown for Cleveland in Week 8, and Nick Boyle's five-yard touchdown in Baltimore in Week 9.

Further complicating the picture for the Patriots is that the Eagles tight end pair of Ertz and Goedert is the best they've faced from a receiving-talent perspective. Ertz has made the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons and recorded 116 catches in 2018. Goedert was a second-round pick in 2018 out of South Dakota State. His player comparison at the time, as determined by NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein? Ertz.

"He's pretty good," Belichick said of Ertz. "He's really good at everything. In the passing game, man routes he can get open against a variety of defenders. He's a tough guy to match up against. He's got a good feel in zone coverage for spacing, when to do the right thing, when to slow down, when to speed up, when to go behind or in front of, how to adjust his routes and so forth. 

"He's a really good player. They move him around a lot. He's in a lot of different positions. Until they come out of the huddle, it's hard to really know where he's going to be. Sometimes he lines up at the tight end, traditional location, but not a high percentage of the time. He's in different spots. They use a couple different personnel groups so you have to find him within each group. He's a good player."

The Patriots have had to deal with Ertz before. He was targeted nine times in Super Bowl LII, catching seven for 67 yards and a touchdown. Patriots coverage plans were out of sorts that day — they didn't play one of their starting corners, you'll remember — but Devin McCourty saw Ertz quite a bit, holding him to two catches on four targets for 13 yards, with one of those targets resulting in a late-game touchdown.

How will the Patriots go about defending Ertz this time around? If what Matt Patricia and the Lions did in Week 3 is any indication, Ertz will be doubled on third downs and in the red zone, and Belichick will try to force Carson Wentz to go elsewhere with the football in critical situations. Then they'll have to worry about Goedert, who's averaging 10.5 yards per catch this season, and will likely find himself in one-on-one scenarios matched up with safeties or linebackers.

Against the Patriots, avoiding their corners at all costs is typically the way to go. Their secondary has been the best in football at limiting opposing wideouts this season, allowing just 5.1 yards per attempt to that position, per Sharp Football Stats. Success targeting tight ends has been easier to come by, even without Belichick having to prepare for household names at the position through nine games. The Patriots are allowing 7.8 yards per target to tight ends this season, which is 17th in the NFL.

With the Eagles struggling the way they are at the receiver spot, they aren't sacrificing much if they largely excise that position from their Patriots plan and highlight their tight ends instead. Given the frequency with which they've deployed two tight end sets this year, and given the way the Patriots have struggled against those sets lately, expect to see a heavy dose of "12" on Sunday.

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE TO TOM E. CURRAN'S PATRIOTS TALK PODCAST:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Point/Counterpoint: Ranking Patriots' opponents in this challenging four-game stretch

Point/Counterpoint: Ranking Patriots' opponents in this challenging four-game stretch

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. This week, they debate the Patriots schedule. Which of their next four games is the toughest? They've ranked them here in order from strongest to weakest.

WHICH OF THE NEXT FOUR PATRIOTS GAMES IS TOUGHEST...RANK 'EM

EAGLES: On the road. Talented team. They turned the corner after getting smashed in back-to-back weeks by the Vikings and Cowboys. They’ve now won two in a row (at Buffalo, 31-12 and home with the Bears, 22-14). They’ve run for 364 over their past two games and are going to go right at the Patriots to see if they’ve spruced up their run defense over the bye. Philly’s also coming off a bye. Carson Wentz has been quietly efficient and tight ends have been finding success against the Patriots. Zach Ertz is the best one they’ve faced.

TEXANS: They have two tough ones in a row before the face the Patriots (Ravens and Colts). But they’ve won four of five and Deshaun Watson can be a handful. If the Patriots can get the pressure on him that they’ve been getting all season, they’ll be able to hold the Houston offense mostly in check. But when Watson is well-protected he’s as dangerous as any quarterback in the league.

CHIEFS: The one thing that would concern me here is if it gets into a shootout. The Patriots hadn’t shown a clockwork offense until the Ravens game. Did they find something that will spawn a more consistent approach especially on third down and in the red zone? And how does the back end hold up against the unfair speed combo of Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman? At Gillette? They should take care of business.

COWBOYS: Bill Belichick vs. Jason Garrett? I’ll take the Patriots in this one fairly handily. The Cowboys will also be coming off a game at Detroit before heading to Foxboro, so I wouldn’t underrate the chance to pick the brains of the Lions coaching staff and see how Dallas reacts to what Detroit does as being a key subplot to this one.

***


CHIEFS: Patrick Mahomes. The combination of their team speed, the quarterback's arm and Andy Reid's scheme will be a handful for anyone the Chiefs see the rest of the way. Patriots included. Kansas City also seems to be adjusting to its new defensive identity under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who's assisted by former Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly. That's not a very good unit, but it might be a serviceable one by the time it gets to Foxboro. It'll be interesting to see Isaiah Wynn and Frank Clark match up. It might not be the preview of the AFC title game we all expected. But, given where the Chiefs record is, it might be a preview of the divisional round.

TEXANS: The Patriots will be on the road against the player who is probably, at the midway point of the season, the runner-up for league MVP. Deshaun Watson has been pressured at a rate higher than all but five quarterbacks in the league, yet he's sixth in yards per attempt, fourth in quarterback rating and fourth in completion percentage. Only Russell Wilson has been better. The Texans will be without JJ Watt, and their offensive line is still a mess. But if they're healthy at the receiver position -- as lock-down as the Patriots have been on that spot all year -- their second and third options could give the Patriots headaches. 

COWBOYS: Jason Garrett is still the boss in Dallas, but the offense has been handed over to Kellen Moore and the results have been impressive. Dak Prescott truly looks like one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league (third in yards per attempt, 8.71), and the Cowboys are no longer totally reliant on their running game. In fact, they've been an explosive play waiting to happen. They're first in explosive run rate this year, per Sharp Football Stats, and fifth in explosive pass rate. That's a dangerous combination. The Patriots shut those down with regularity (No. 1 in the NFL in limiting explosive plays), but if they're forced to bring additional forces into the box to try to slow down Elliott, they may make themselves vulnerable deep against Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.

EAGLES: The Patriots should be able to take care of business following their bye. Philly's about to be in a situation where they have to start recently re-signed receiver Jordan Matthews. They don't scare anyone at that position. Zach Ertz should be doubled. And as long as Miles Sanders is bottled up in the passing game, the Patriots will be OK. The Eagles running game has been potent, but if the Patriots score early on Philadelphia's generous secondary, that should force Doug Pederson to chase points and eventually abandon his ground game. Against 11 personnel, which the Patriots ran for the entirety of their last game, the Eagles allow over 7.0 yards per pass attempt, a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and 5.0 yards per carry. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Foles shocks Vikings to set stage for Patriots and Eagles in Super Bowl LII

Foles shocks Vikings to set stage for Patriots and Eagles in Super Bowl LII

FOXBORO -- Nick Foles reached deep down inside, way down, like, into the small intestine, to pull out a performance that had him looking like Nick Foles of 2013. 

Putting together one of the greatest quarterback games in the history of the NFL's conference-championship weekend -- yes, you read that correctly -- Foles threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns and recorded a rating of 141.4 to help Philly beat up on Minnesota, 38-7, ruining the chances of a Vikings home Super Bowl in the process.

It's been four years since Foles, who had a 27-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013, looked like one of the best quarterbacks in football. But what he did to the league's top-rated defense has to have boosted his confidence headed into a Super Bowl matchup where his club will be underdogs for the third consecutive playoff game. 

The Patriots have opened as 5.5-point favorites, making the Eagles the heaviest Super Bowl dog since 2009. That number could shift if it looks like the Patriots could be without Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a head injury in the second quarter against the Jaguars and did not return. 

Here are a few quick-hitting thoughts on the Patriots-Eagles matchup for the Lombardi Trophy . . . 

WHY THE EAGLES ARE BETTER THAN YOU THOUGHT

When Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 10, it looked like Philly's chances at a Super Bowl went with him. Because they were without not only Wentz but also starting left tackle Jason Peters and running back Darren Sproles. But their suffocating defense, led by a ferocious front-seven, has carried them. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is one of the most dominant players at his position the NFL has to offer. Defensive end Brandon Graham is a consistently-bothersome presence off the edge and an analytics darling because of an absurd number of pressures -- 158 over the last three seasons and counting. Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, rookie Derek Barnett and former Patriots end Chris Long round out a  group that will have a very real chance to get after Tom Brady without defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialing up blitzes. For the second straight game, the Patriots' offensive line will have its hands full.

WHY THE EAGLES ARE WORSE THAN YOU THOUGHT

This really comes down to Foles. Which version will show up in Minnesota in two weeks? Will it be the one who shredded the Vikings? Or will it be the one who skated by the Raiders in Week 16 with a 50 percent completion mark and a rating of 59.4, the one who couldn't hold onto a starting gig after his historic 2013? If it's the latter, his weapons -- which are good but not dominant -- probably won't be enough to save him. Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount make up a hard-headed rushing attack. Zach Ertz is a talented receiving tight end but is more receiver than tight end. Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith all are capable of picking up explosive gains on the ground, but they need their quarterback to be able to get them the football. 

HOW THE PATRIOTS MAY HANDLE THINGS

Defensively, this could get interesting for the Patriots. On the one hand, they're going to have to stop the run. They could pull a page from each of their last two defensive game plans to sell out against hard-charging backs. On the other, what Foles did against the No. 1 defense in the NFL complicates the equation. They probably can't dare Foles to win from the pocket the way they did with Marcus Mariota. They can't have breakdowns on short dump-offs the way they did against Blake Bortles. They'll have to pressure Foles up front and then compete at the catch point with Foles' talented down-the-field wideouts. Offensively, the Patriots may want to steer clear of the running game. The Eagles were No. 1 in the league against the run this season, allowing just 79.2 yards per contest. When the Patriots throw, they'll have to contend with safety Malcolm Jenkins and corner Ronald Darby on the back end, and they'll have to protect against Philly's tough front. But keeping Brady upright in the passing game may be easier than trying to grind out yardage on the ground. Patriots backs and receivers ran for just 3.28 yards per carry against the Jaguars. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE