The Dallas Cowboys limited Zach Ertz to one of his worst offensive outputs in the 2018 season. How did they do it? Coming into the game, Ertz was a seen to have a favorable matchup entering the Week 14 showdown.
In Week 10, the Cowboys surrendered 14 catches, 145 yards and 2 touchdowns to Ertz. They’ve also been challenged by tight ends all year, allowing the 11th most yards to the position. A change was needed. They made one by shadowing Ertz with top-flight cornerback Byron Jones in key situations.
The decision, which in my educated guess was made by passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach Kris Richard, made a ton of sense. Jones is a converted safety who is accustomed to matching up with tight ends. He also boasts a bonkers physical and athletic profile capable of erasing larger, less athletic weapons.
Putting aside traditional labels, Ertz is unquestionably the Eagles’ “Weapon 1”. The passing game features him heavily. Some have taken umbrage with this, but he’s been extremely effective. The problem comes when he’s taken away and the offense can’t adjust to the new realities on the battlefield.
How effective was this strategy for the Cowboys? I charted 9 plays where Jones followed Ertz, including 6 third downs of which none were converted. In those 9 plays, Carson Wentz was sacked 3 times, the offense had a total of -9 yards, and they only had 1 “successful” play. Quick math, that’s an 11% success rate (that’s really, really bad).
When Ertz was shadowed by Jones, the other weapons failed to create separation and/or Carson Wentz failed to find other outlets. None of the designs were particularly inspiring, and even when they got what they wanted, the other team made the better play.
That inability to adjust hurt the Eagles early. In the first half the Eagles only attempted 8 passes. 3 of those went to Ertz for 30 yards. No other receiver had more than 1 target and none of them had double-digit yard outputs. In the third quarter the offense got Alshon Jeffery more involved. Late in the third quarter they hit Darren Sproles on a key 4th down conversion on a staple “mesh-sit wheel” concept.
Positive note.. this "Mesh-Sit Wheel" on 4th & 3 was the same as the 55-yard gain to Clement on 3rd & 3 in the Super Bowl.— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) December 10, 2018
It forces LVE to make a choice; go under the rub to take away to the quick flat, or go over to take away the wheel. pic.twitter.com/9K8VonVP4k
Dallas Goedert got a late invite to the party, including having a touchdown called back due to an egregious offensive pass interference call. In the fourth quarter Ertz was targeted twice with no catches, but you saw a much better distribution to the other weapons. You also saw the Eagles successfully “hide” Ertz in bunch sets to get him away from Jones at times, though arguably not enough.
Why did it take so long to adjust? First, let’s bust a myth about half-time adjustments. They aren’t as impactful as we writers often make them out to be. Adjustments are happening play-to-play, drive-to-drive. What about the adjustment Jim Schwartz made at the behest of Malcolm Jenkins that helped the Eagles beat the New York Giants? It came late in the second quarter, not at half-time.
Whoever is responsible for putting out those fires and counter punching with new tactics, likely the offensive coordinator Mike Groh, failed to address the problem until it was too late. The story wasn’t Ertz catching only 5 balls for 38 yards. The story was the offenses’ brain trust not being able to adjust quickly enough. That’s been the story the entire season.