The question is no longer about breakthrough seasons. The question now is, is Zach Ertz about to set records? The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles’ tight end is now tied for 2nd in the NFL for receptions (61) and is 1st among tight ends for receiving yards (644).
At the midway point in the season, those numbers put him on pace for 122 receptions and 1,288 yards. That would shatter the tight end record for receptions (110) set by Jason Witten in 2012 and put him in striking distance of Rob Gronkowski’s 1,327-yard record set in 2011.
Ertz is also leading tight ends in red zone targets (14), receptions (7), and he’s tied for 2nd with 3 touchdowns coming from inside the 20. The addition of rookie tight end Dallas Goedert has allowed Ertz to work more from the slot, where he has thrived. He spends 56% of his snaps from that alignment which is a 12% increase over 2017. He’s first among tight ends operating out of the slot with 47 targets, 34 catches and 411 yards.
Beyond the box score and analytics, the season Ertz is putting together from a route running perspective is splendid. He has routinely uncovered against man coverage, delights in facing zone, and has come up big in the red zone with his ability to tilt defenders at the break-point.
That ability showed up in a crucial moment in Week 8 against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ cornerback Tre Herndon.
Ertz knows he ultimately needs to get outside on this route, but Herndon is showing him outside leverage. Understanding he needs to create a secondary release, he has to get square with Herndon. The way he achieves this is by widening his initial release to match the width of Herndon. This gives him options. He can threaten inside, vertical, and outside.
Once he gets square, he attacks vertically and nods inside. This forces Herndon to give ground and turn his hips, providing Ertz with the clearance necessary to attack outside and into space. The throw is behind, but it doesn’t matter as the scrambling Herndon can’t make up enough ground and gather his bearings in time to make a play on the ball.
Similar to the previous route, this is all about giving yourself multi-directional options at the secondary release point. Ertz attacks the off coverage of Minnesota Vikings’ cornerback Mike Hughes vertically while he stems inside to get square. This forces Hughes to slightly hesitate before breaking, which is all is required.
With safety Harrison Smith being occupied by the underneath threat, Ertz gets depth to his route to provide Carson Wentz a clean window in which to throw. Wentz delivers a strike and Ertz makes an excellent catch above his eyes and behind his momentum.
Ertz doesn’t just beat up on practice squad corners and rookies; he does it against long-time starting veterans too. This was the case when he was isolated against New York Giants’ cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
There are several layers to this play that make it successful and it shows the creativity in which the Eagles attack in the red zone. The Eagles show a “big” formation to start. They’ve got two tight ends and a wide receiver lined up in the backfield with Ertz and Corey Clement at tight end. The Giants’ are sure this is a “bust out” formation, but knowing that doesn’t make their job easier. The late shift forces the Giants’ to communicate their new deployment while processing the action and puts them at a disadvantage.
Once the ball is snapped, the Eagles utilize play-action to dress the design up as a boot to the right. Jenkins is watching all this and understands that if it’s boot right he’s likely to get an “over” route from Ertz across the formation. Ertz uses this to his advantage and sells the over before he breaks off his route to the outside, leaving Jenkins befuddled. Wentz cuts off his boot action and it’s an easy pitch and catch from there.
The other part of Ertz’s game that has led to his gaudy numbers is his ability to find the soft spot in zones. This speaks to his mental processing and play speed, because he does this at an extremely high level.
Facing a cover 3 shell, Ertz understands he has to widen and then attack the space inbetween the defender to his outside and the defender picking up Nelson Agholor to his inside. This is routine for Ertz as he possesses fantastic spacial awareness. As soon as he finds the void, he gears down and shows his number to the quarterback.
He also has this ability when operating against man coverage. His chemistry and the trust Wentz has in him is a big part of why Ertz leads the team in targets.
Working against cover 1 robber and single coverage from safety Andrew Sendejo, Ertz flashes his ability to uncover regardless of the situation.
The Eagles are attacking the three levels on the left side of the field and Ertz is supposed to run a deep out. Sendejo does a good job maintaining his leverage throughout the route stem and provides a roadblock to the outside. Processing this, Ertz shuts it down and sits, leaving Sendejo behind. Wentz steps up in the pocket and watches this happen, delivering an easy downfield throw.
Man, zone, corners, safeties, from the slot or in-line.. there’s no situation that Ertz can’t win with nuance and savvy. His development over the years has led to him becoming a truly elite route runner; one which the Eagles are lucky to have. The Eagles and Wentz recognize this and their faith in him has him set up to make a serious run at the record books.