Doug Pederson’s on a four-game heater against the Washington Redskins. It started on a Week 7 Monday Night contest — you may remember it as the game Jason Peters lost the remainder of the 2017 NFL season to an ACL/MCL tear. Most recently, it included a 24-0 shellacking in Week 17 of this past season, with a glimmer of playoff hope peeking through the curtain that was eventually peeled back by, of all people, Kirk Cousins, the ex-Redskins QB who lost to the Chicago Bears and gave the Eagles their 2018 playoff berth.
Pederson isn’t the only Eagle to show out against the Redskins. At one point in his young career, as he was still developing into the league standard at the tight end position, Zach Ertz was particularly good against the Washington Redskins. His 18-target, 15-reception game in 2014 both still stand as his largest single-game usage in his career; he followed up in 2015 with a 13-target, 10-reception performance as well. Both games were losing efforts, as Philly sloughed off the Chip Kelly era and emerged into Doug Pederson’s reign — but they hearkened at what was to come for Ertz in the Eagles’ offense.
Now, Ertz doesn’t deliver the odd, strong performance against the ‘Skins — he delivers them far more frequently and predictably. That said, he’s still a notable part of the passing game against Washington: he’s been the Eagles’ leading receiver in three of those four Pederson wins against Washington, totaling a stat line of 27 targets, 25 catches, 280 yards, and a touchdown. Might be good!
To understand what makes Ertz such a good tight end, we should start with a familiar catch against the Redskins in Week 7 of 2017:
Why is this play familiar? It was a key piece in one of the best pieces of football content produced by the Eagles website — which is no small laurel — back when John DeFilippo was Carson Wentz’s quarterbacks’ coach.
The relevant quote from DeFilippo here concerns leverage, and how Ertz manipulates it. DeFilippo lauds Ertz as the best player at manipulating and generating leverage, receiver or tight end, he’s ever coached.
Leverage is critical to understand because Zach Ertz...well, he’s not running away from most people. As we like to tease him, Ertz rarely breaks tackles or makes players miss in the open field the way a Travis Kelce does or a Rob Gronkowski once did. Ertz simply isn’t the same caliber athlete.
But Ertz’s ability to put himself between the defender and the throwing window makes him a favorite and easy target: he always protects the quarterback by establishing positioning to protect the football from being played on. Accurate passes to Ertz are rarely broken up or intercepted: he’s too physical, too big, too sure-handed, and critically: he’s always in the right spot.
That manipulation of leverage makes Ertz a very strong middle of the field receiver. In the middle of the field is where the leverage matters most, because there isn’t a sideline to assist the defender. Against the sideline, defenders will always keep inside leverage — to keep outside leverage would be to keep the receiver in bounds, instead of forcing him out of bounds. Makes no sense.
But in the middle of the field, defenders must worry about both in- and out-breaking routes, which means Ertz’s ability to turn defenders’ hips and force them into the recovery phase is maximized. It doesn’t matter if he won’t consistently separate, in that he’s not running out of reach from defenders — he consistently uncovers, in that he generates a clear throwing window for an easy, chain-moving completion.
Acknowledging Ertz’s success as a leverage player allows us to better understand his usage against the Redskins — and subsequently, his success. Take the Week 13 game in 2018 which put the Eagles back on the .500 mark: Ertz had 9 catches on 10 targets for 83 yards in a stick-mover role. How did they get such free, high-percentage money with Ertz?
The Redskins tend to be a MOFC closed team (Middle Of the Field Closed), which means they like to play with a single-high safety. Accordingly, against 3x1 sets, which see three receivers line up to one side and an isolated receiver to the opposite side, the Redskins often lock the backside corner 1-on-1 against that isolated receiver.
For most teams, that receiver is the X — the split-end, the WR1, your best guy versus their best guy. And the Eagles do that with Alshon Jeffery a fair bit — but what if you could put Zach Ertz out there? With his route-running ability as the isolated X-receiver, and his size against a smaller corner, Ertz was able to win on quick-breaking routes that were often contested, but not disrupted by CB Fabian Moreau — and when they put a S over him, Ertz was too explosive to mirror.
Again, we have an in-breaking route, a hitch, and an out-breaking route. Because Ertz is aligned tighter to the ball, in what we call a reduced split (compare how close he is to the center as opposed to the widest receiver on the opposite side of the field), he’s still able to run out-breaking routes and threaten leverage in either direction. Notice how the Eagles swing the running back out into the flat to force the WILL linebacker into the flat and prevent him from sinking underneath Ertz’s routes, and with how much anticipation Carson Wentz targets Ertz. That signifies trust.
The ability for Ertz to line up as a quasi-X receiver makes him a nightmare to match against on your defensive personnel — but in those alignments, Ertz is infrequently a deep threat, as his modest long speed is better suited against slower linebackers and safeties than it is against spry corners. Against Washington specifically, Philly has relied on a Double Post, or Dino concept, to open Ertz up at a larger target depth.
Again, notice that we’re attacking the middle of the field; Ertz is winning with leverage; and we’re expecting MOFC coverage from the Redskins. The first, or innermost Post in this concept is often called the Thru route, as the receiver looks to run straight through the deep middle safety, freezing him in place with his approach. This opens the room for Ertz, who will threaten to the outside with the break of the corner route, keeping the corner on outside leverage before whipping back into the post route. This Corner-Post route is called a “Copper” route in the Eagles’ playbook, and is a favorite of their tight ends.
Dallas Goedert's touchdown came on a variation of the "Snag" concept, in which the TE fakes the corner and hits the corner-post, or "Copper" route as Doug calls it.— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 6, 2019
Ertz scored on the same exact concept LAST YEAR v. Chicago. You can see the plays back-to-back here. pic.twitter.com/XkCvSRgCpz
This is Ertz’s money route, and we should expect to see it inside the 30-yard line on Sunday against Washington. It often leads to a contested catch, but with Ertz’s strength and body positioning, those catches tend to go well for Philadelphia.
Ertz has never had as high of expectations coming into a season with the Eagles, nor has he had as much competition for touches in the passing game. After setting a single-season record for receptions by a tight end (116), expect a regression to the mean from Ertz — but that doesn’t necessarily mean a regression in quality of play. At the prime of his game, most safeties and linebackers — let alone the members of the struggling Washington roster — will fail to cover Ertz for four quarters. He just seems to get up for these Washington games.