Patriots

Zach Ertz was 'crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles TE

Zach Ertz was 'crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles TE

PHILADELPHIA — Zach Ertz's numbers looked good. And Ertz fantasy owners were likely very pleased with what Ertz provided on Sunday, catching nine passes on 11 targets for 94 yards.

But, as one of the only viable receiving options in the Eagles offensive huddle, the Patriots rendered Ertz's contributions largely meaningless. Without starting receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, the Patriots were able to focus on Ertz and help stymie the Philadelphia passing game. Carson Wentz completed 20 of his 40 attempts for 214 yards and a touchdown. Including the five sacks he absorbed, Wentz averaged just 3.9 yards per dropback.

Despite the injuries to his offensive unit, Eagles coach Doug Pederson believed they'd be able to muster more than that paltry figure in their 17-10 defeat. 

"We feel like," Pederson said, "with Zach and Dallas [Goedert], we can do some things . . . Listen, give them credit. They did a nice job on defense kind of taking those players away. We knew that coming into this game, and we just didn't make enough plays."

Ertz, in particular, was kept quiet early on. 

He caught three passes for 16 yards, none of which resulted in first downs, through the first quarter. He helped get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own end zone during their long first-half touchdown drive, but didn't touch the football beyond his team's 26-yard line on that series.

In the second quarter, Ertz caught back-to-back passes for 20 yards, but the Eagles punted two plays later. Ertz caught one pass in the third quarter for one yard, bringing his three-quarter total to six catches, 37 yards.

At one point, it looked like Patriots coverages were starting to get to him. 

On Philadelphia's final third-down snap of the third quarter, Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore provided physical one-on-one man-to-man coverage. Wentz went elsewhere with the football, the pass fell incomplete, and Ertz appealed to the closest official for a penalty flag. He didn't get one, and then he and Gilmore exchanged words as the Eagles punt team took the field. 

"He was crying," Gilmore said. "He do that on film a lot. If you get into him. If he don't get the ball or he don't get a call, he'll cry. But he's a good receiver. He's a good tight end. He's a great player . . . He's a great player, but when he don't get his way, he'll complain to the ref. But who don't do that?"

The Patriots plan for Ertz was, essentially, to have Gilmore take Ertz when he was clearly going to be a receiver — second-and-long, third downs, obvious passing situations late in the game with the Eagles trying to come back. Gilmore had Ertz in man-to-man on a second-and-eight play early in the game, but then Ertz was bracketed on the subsequent third down and Gilmore took receiver Jordan Matthews. Jonathan Jones took Ertz on a first-down snap early in the game. Safeties Devin McCourty and Terrence Brooks had Ertz at different points in the game as well.

It was a varied plan, one that the Patriots were able to execute thanks to their polished system of communication.

"It's from coaching down," Gilmore said. "Sometimes I was gonna be on him. Sometimes the safeties was gonna be on him. You can't line up in one thing the whole time. You gotta keep them thinking. That's one thing we did today. He didn't know who was gonna be on him at certain times. It helped out a lot."

Gilmore also had the benefit of getting the occasional chip at the line of scrimmage on Ertz. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, playing on the edge, knocked Ertz off of his route immediately during a third-and-nine play and Gilmore took him from there. 

Though Ertz is essentially a 6-foot-5, 250-pound receiver in certain situations, Gilmore said he couldn't play him like the receivers he typically shadows on a weekly basis. 

"I gotta slow myself down a little bit because they're so slow," Gilmore said of covering tight ends. "But they're big and they push off a lot. Just gotta slow myself down a little bit because I'm used to covering faster guys. If I do that, I can play them pretty tight . . . "

"You can see it on film. Ertz is a fast guy, but like I said, I've guarded faster guys. I gotta really slow down and not get on top like I play receivers. Let him beat me a little bit. If I play on top he'll push me off. That's the game plan I had."

Ertz came alive late in the game, catching three of five targets in the fourth quarter for 57 yards and three first downs as the Eagles pushed the pace. Philly had a chance to tie it late with a heave to Nelson Agholor on fourth down, but it bounced off of Agholor's hands and to the turf. 

The fact that Ertz wasn't the one to be the target with Wentz looking for a critical strike meant that, in some respects, despite what the box score would tell you, the Patriots did what they wanted with Philly's top offensive weapon. 

Brooks, who played for the Eagles in 2016, said having some experience seeing Ertz in practice years ago might've helped him Sunday. He played 35 snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, which was his second-highest total of the season. With Patrick Chung inactive due to injury, Brooks stepped into an increased role.

"That comes with film study and practice reps and things like that and for the most part confidence," Brooks said of taking Ertz. "You gotta be confident that whoever lines up across from you, you can take him on. I was up for the challenge, man. I was excited about it. That's one of the best tight ends in the game. I was very happy to get that chance to keep going against him . . . 

"He made some nice catches, other ones with tight coverage. But I give it to him. I got a lot of respect for that guy and what he does in this league, but I feel like it's on me, whoever I line up across, to shut them down. That's my mindset every time."

Ertz wasn't totally shut down. His final stats would suggest as much. But he was shut down on third down (zero catches) and in the red zone (zero catches). He didn't have a catch in Patriots territory. 

Whether it was Brooks in coverage or Gilmore or McCourty, or someone else, the Patriots took Ertz away when Wentz needed him most and won. No matter what the box score says, they'll take that.

Edelman: First Patriot in Brady era to accomplish this feat>>>>>

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Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

During Thursday night's game against the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson made history. He broke Michael Vick's record for the most quarterback rushing yards in a season on an early-game run against the Jets defense.

In the wake of this historic moment, another historically-good quarterback took time to comment on Jackson's speed and running ability. But not in the way that many would think.

That's right, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady challenged Jackson to a race on Twitter.

Okay, so maybe it's not really a race. Or a challenge of any sort. Brady is just making fun of his own lacking speed while praising Jackson for his effort this season.

Still, the image of Jackson trying to race Brady on natural grass while on rollerblades is hilarious. But frankly, it's no guarantee that Brady would win that one given Jackson's unbelievable athletic ability.

That said, Jackson didn't seem to like his chances in the race, as captured postgame by ESPN.

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

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How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

FOXBORO -- N'Keal Harry didn't get on the field much last week. He played two snaps, to be exact. But on one of them, he flashed the skill set that made him a first-round pick in the spring. 

Bouncing off three potential tacklers, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound wideout kept his balance, stopped himself from going out of bounds and laid out to break the plane of the goal line with the football. Of course, he was ruled out of bounds. But he wasn't. And what he did after catching Tom Brady's shallow flip caught offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' eye. 

"Certainly, he made a great individual effort," McDaniels said this week. "Broke a tackle and then had good balance there to finish the play and give us an opportunity to score. He’s a big guy. He’s not easy to get to the ground. Certainly, when you have players like that, it comes back to how can you get him the football in those situations, understanding that there’s a level of diminishing returns if you try to keep doing the same things over and over again? 

"Meaning there’s only so many times you can hand a player that’s not a running back the ball. There’s only so many times you can throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Whatever those are – slants, unders, etc. – those plays are all productive plays when you have a guy that can do something with it. 

"We know [Harry's] big and not easy to tackle, and like I said, I need to do a better job of finding ways to get him in space, get him the ball and letting him have an opportunity to do those things."

We highlighted earlier this week how the Patriots have struggled in the red zone this season, but their passing game has been bogged down for weeks -- regardless of where they are on the field. Brady has cracked 300 yards passing just once since Week 6. His yards per attempt number hasn't cracked 7.0 (his career average is 7.5) since Week 8. 

Perhaps trying to get Harry more involved could provide the team a boost. He's looked unsure of his assignment at times when breaking the huddle this season -- he hesitated before going into motion on his would-be touchdown catch-and-run play -- but his physical skill set is hard to ignore for an offense experiencing the difficulties this one is. 

Here are a few ways Harry might be able to help if he sees more than a couple of snaps this coming weekend against the Bengals...

GET HIM IN SPACE

McDaniels understands as well as anyone that one of Harry's strengths coming out of college was what he was able to do in the short passing game. Arizona State would throw him screens or quick hitches against off coverage, he'd turn, break a tackle, reverse field and turn it into an explosive gain. Happened multiple times. 

In the NFL, press coverage is more prevalent. And broken tackles are harder to come by than they were in the Pac 12. But Harry still has above-average size and upper-body strength (he was in the 99th percentile among combine receivers in the bench press), and clearly has the ability to shake off tackles from smaller defensive backs. 

The Patriots have tried to use Harry in space at times this season, but not often. He'd run what looked like six under routes prior to his catch against the Chiefs. He hadn't been used in motion until that play. And he has only been used out of one bunch formation. 

They tried to get him in space on a high-low crosser over the middle where a pick from tight end Matt LaCosse gave Harry a bit of an opening. The target sent the rookie's way went incomplete. They've run him on four corner routes from stack alignments -- with another receiver almost directly behind him off the line -- designed to create traffic and manufacture separation. 

They've only run Harry on one screen to this point, and it came in his first game. 

More receiver screens like this one could be beneficial since it's a high-percentage attempt that allows Harry's physicality to take over as soon as he has the ball in his hands. This play might've gone for more with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. 

Even jet sweeps -- or missile-motion plays, as they're sometimes referred to in New England -- might make sense to get the ball in Harry's hands. As McDaniels said, there's only so many times you can do that, but Harry hasn't done it yet. There's timing that needs to be right on those types of snaps, but earlier this week, when asked about the preciseness of the timing on a play like that one, Bill Belichick made it sound like it didn't require an advanced degree in the Erhardt-Perkins system to be able to execute those. 

"There’s an element of timing," Belichick said, "just like there is on mostly every other play. So, you work on it. Try to have the timing right for that play and that’s an important part of it, but again, I think most every team in the league runs that play, or some version of it. So, it’s certainly doable."

HIT 'EM WHERE THEY AIN'T

The Patriots have for years been fond of saying that offensively they want to force defenses to defend "every blade of grass." 

That didn't happen last week in Kansas City. Time and again, the Chiefs were willing to double-team Julian Edelman with their free safety, leaving the middle of the field exposed. Apparently, there was not a player outside of Edelman that the Chiefs feared would beat them long. 

If they were, they had a funny way of showing it. 

The Patriots hit the Chiefs for a pair of long gains when the Chiefs dropped their safety on Edelman and played one-on-one across the board everywhere else, but both gains were the result of defensive pass interference penalties. 

Brady didn't always find the receiver exposing the weak spot in Chiefs coverages when they chose to play without a deep safety. But just as the Chiefs seemed to have no fear in being beaten by Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers or Mohamed Sanu, Brady seemed to have little interest in trying those players on long attempts outside of the deep shots that resulted in flags.

If the Chiefs plan for the Patriots is one that's adopted by other defenses late in the year, then they can expect opposing coordinators to continue to dare them to win deep by taking away Edelman, going one-on-one across the board otherwise, and pressuring Brady with five. 

To hurt that particular scheme, the Patriots need someone who's a threat to win down the middle of the field. Maybe that'll be Sanu, but he's dealing with an ankle injury that appears to be limiting him, and he's not thought of as a down-the-field receiver to begin with. 

Harry would make sense as that hit-'em-where-they-ain't option. He's not necessarily a threat to blow by his defender in coverage -- he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine -- but he's still a threat to defeat one-on-one coverage by out-leaping his man for the ball and making contested catches. He was one of the best, if not the best, contested-catch receivers in this year's draft class and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio touted Harry's ability in that regard soon after he was drafted.

Of the 70 routes Harry has run this year, he's handled what looked like a dozen go routes as well as four posts and a post-corner. All of those are plays that could result in jump-balls for Harry in one-on-one coverage. 

They might not be high-percentage shots, but they might be necessary to soften up defenses because the Chiefs showed that they could slow down the Patriots by leaving the deep part of the field under-manned defensively . . . and it's a copycat league. A couple of long completions to Harry could do wonders to open up the rest of the Patriots passing game. 

PLAY TO STRENGTHS

Without knowing Patriots play-calls or route adjustments on certain snaps, it's hard to know exactly how many of Harry's routes could've ended up as back-shoulder fade targets. In theory, any vertical route up the sideline -- Harry has aligned outside on 81 percent of his routes this year -- could turn into a back-shoulder throw. 

But he has just two back-shoulder targets this season in 70 routes run. Both came against the Cowboys, and one resulted in his first career touchdown. Though he let his only other back-shoulder target slide through his hands in the rain that day, he still seems like a viable target on those types of contested passes the same way Josh Gordon was early on in his Patriots tenure in 2018. 

Harry showed time and again impressive body control and athleticism on back-shoulder attempts this summer well before toe-tapping in the end zone for his first score as a pro. 

Belichick used to say of retired Patriots center Dan Koppen, "His strength is his strength." The same appears to be true for Harry at the receiver position. Both with the ball in his hands or as a jump-ball specialist, Harry's frame is a weapon.

For an offense that could use all the help it can get with its 27th-ranked red-zone offense, dialing up Harry in that fashion seems logical.

Of course Brady will need time in the pocket in order to find Harry, whether it's on a lob near the goal line or deep down the middle of the field to attack a vacated area -- something the 42-year-old quarterback hasn't been afforded much of lately. 

But if the Patriots can protect, and if they feel comfortable trusting Harry to execute his assignments, then there are ways he can help provide a spark. They're at the point now where they need to exhaust all options. 

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

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