You’ll often see or hear, at any point in any game, a fellow fan say, “we need a touchdown this drive” or “we can’t beat this team with field goals”. Yes, ideally you want to score every drive. Yes, ideally you would rather punch it in rather than settling for a field goal. Luckily for the Super Bowl Champion Eagles, settling for field goals in scoring position was not the standard operating procedure in 2017.
Including on running and passing plays, the Eagles executed 145 plays in the red zone. They ran 77 passes and 68 runs. The ground game produced 147 yards and 8 touchdowns, but the real reason behind the Eagles success in this area was the passing game.
In 2016 Carson Wentz struggled in the red zone despite being responsible with the ball. He posted a stat line of 42/86 (48.8%), 246 yards, 12 TD, and 1 INT for a 90 QB Rating.
In 2017 he turned the tables, where he was far more impactful and accurate: 38/58 (65.5%), 277 yards, 23 TD, and 0 INT for a 116.2 QB Rating (1st among qualifying quarterbacks). That turnaround led to the Eagles ranking 1st in red zone TD percentage (65.45%) and was the 2nd biggest positive leap from 2016 to 2017 (+16.36%).
Aiding Wentz in bolstering his numbers with a compressed field was tight end Zach Ertz. Head coach Doug Pederson and his staff did an excellent job getting Ertz isolated in space against favorable match-ups. Looking at the numbers, Ertz ranked tied for 1st with Nelson Agholor in targets (18), 2nd in receptions (12), 1st in yards (82), and 1st in touchdowns (8).
Wentz-Ertz Red Zone TD Reel pic.twitter.com/5CFffwQOep— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) October 20, 2017
Week 3 vs NYG: Up 7-0, 3rd Quarter 5:19, 3rd & Goal (3)
Ertz (#86) motions to the right of tight end Brent Celek (87#) which causes NYG safety Landon Collins (#21) to roll up to press. At the snap, Ertz widens him out, using a whip release to gain an inside release to space. Running back LaGarrette Blount (#29) holds Collins to the flat, Celek releases inside and holds the playside linebacker Jonathan Casillas (#52). The spacing of these routes creates a void for Wentz, who throws a strike before safety Darian Thompson (#27) can roll down.
This is all about spacing, which provides Wentz with easy decisions depending on how the zones gets stretched. This concept stressed Casillas, who visibly gets caught in a blender deciding between covering Ertz or Celek.
Week 5 vs AZ: Up 7-0, 1st Quarter 4:22, 3rd & 6 (11)
From 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE), the Eagles isolate Ertz on a safety by alignment. This time he is up against AZ safety Tyvon Branch (#27), which is a match-up the Eagles exploited throughout the game. The concept is similar, create space and give Ertz room to operate. Ertz widens on his release, shows strength at the breakpoint, catches clean at his chest on the move, and withstands a shot from safety Tyrann Mathieu (#32).
Week 6 @ CAR: Down 3-10, 2nd Quarter 2:54, 3rd & Goal (1)
In 13 personnel, Ertz is flexed to the slot with two tight ends lined up to his right. Blount motions left to a plus split and is followed by linebacker Shaq Thompson (#54), signifying man coverage. This means Ertz has one-on-one coverage with Daryl Worley (#26). Ertz widens to attack Worley’s outside leverage while tight end Trey Burton (#88) bolts to the flats, causing Mike Adams (#29) to vacate the middle of the field. Ertz uses his strength to create separation at the breakpoint before snapping his route inside for an easy pitch and catch TD.
Week 6 @ CAR: Tied 10-10, 3rd Quarter 4:22, 2nd & 10 (17).
The Eagles go 3×1 from the Shotgun. Ertz is solo on the right side, detached from the line in a “nasty split”. Pre-snap notice Ertz point out cornerback James Bradberry (#24) before the snap. He’s signaling to Wentz that based on Bradberry’s leverage, he’s expecting him to drop to the flats in a zone Cover 2, and that’s exactly what happens.
Wentz holds linebackers Thomas Davis (#58) and Luke Kuechly (#59) with his eyes as he glances to the 3 WR side of the formation. This creates a gap between levels in which for Wentz to throw. Ertz nods to the outside at the breakpoint, causing the safety Adams to drift outside, leaving enough room for Ertz to cut inside and box Adams out for his 4th red zone TD of the season.
I wrote in-depth for Inside the Pylon about another red zone concept the Eagles used effectively against the Chicago Bears, you can find that article here. It’s a personal favorite that adds a wrinkle to a traditional concept to create false keys.
Success for the Eagles in 2017 was the result of a perfect storm. Effective play-calling put their play-makers in position to succeed, Wentz and Nick Foles executed the subtleties of the offense and made the correct decisions, and Ertz, aided by dangerous weapons surrounding him, harnessed his play strength and nuanced route running to form a frightening offense to deal with in the red zone.