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.
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