One thing that’s made the Philadelphia Eagles offense successful during their sudden resurgence and ahead of their Divisional Playoff showdown this Sunday against the Saints at the Superdome, is by making a key change to how they deploy their players on each play, known by the term “12 personnel”.
As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill: cutting off the middle of the field had a lot to do with shutting down the Eagles offense 2 months ago, when the Saints destroyed the Eagles by a score of 48-7 back during Week #11 of the 2018 Regular Season in mid-November.
Specifically, the Saints were able to shut down the Philly offense that day because they were able to take All-Pro tight end Zach Ertz out of the game; as he finished with 2 catches for only 15 yards in what was his worst performance of the entire year.
The 28-year old Ertz ― who finished the year with 116 catches for 1,163 yards and set the NFL record for most receptions in a season by a tight end ― was picked up in coverage by the Saints linebackers when ever he was lined up tight to the formation, and a strong safety often picked him when he moved to the slot.
However as Underhill observed: this Sunday’s Divisional Playoff game likely will require the Saints defense to utilize a different approach, since the Philadelphia played 72 percent of their snaps against the Black and Gold in that game 2 months ago, out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), according to Sports Info Solutions.
But not long after making the switch at QB from injured starter Carson Wentz to back-up QB Nick Foles and going on their current 4-game winning streak that helped them earn the #6 seed and final Playoff spot in the NFC, Philadelphia’s use of 11 personnel dropped to 48 percent, as they ran an even amount of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers).
And as the story can now be told: by making this one simple but yet significant change to how they deploy their players on any one given play, it’s completely helped open up the Eagles offense by allowing Foles to beat teams in pass coverage for Ertz and his sensational young teammate, rookie TE Dallas Goedert.
The Eagles’ offense is indisputably at its best when the “dynamic duo” of Ertz and Goedert are on the field together, since BOTH players possess “elite-caliber” receiving skills.
And with them both standing at 6-foot-5 tall and resembling two power forwards on an NBA basketball team, Ertz and Goedert are as hard to defend as any one TE tandem in the entire NFL.
The 24-year old Goedert played sparingly in that game between the Saints and the Eagles two months ago (3 targets and zero catches on 16 snaps), but he will see a considerable more amount of playing time against the Black and Gold this Sunday.
His presence and sudden emergence recently has allowed the Eagles and head coach Doug Pederson to alter their entire offensive scheme to fit around the former South Dakota State University All-American’s well-documented strengths as a receiver.
The Nick Foles touchdown to Dallas Goedert pic.twitter.com/OyHatxGUIo
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However, by lining up with more two-tight end formations, it meant that Eagles WR’s Nelson Agholor and newcomer Golden Tate would get even fewer snaps; and Pederson and Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh initially weren’t willing to do that.
“Each week, game plans are different,’’ Pederson said to Philadelphia Inquirer / philly,com beat writer Paul Domowitch. “It just depends on how the defense wants to sub. If they go nickel (five defensive backs), then there’s a really good opportunity to stay in 12 personnel and run the football. And we’ve had some success doing that.”
Domowitch says that the benefit of having two special and versatile tight ends such as Ertz and Goedert, though, should be that you can dictate to the defense, rather than the other way around.
And he notes that when a defense stays in base against Ertz and Goedert, you can exploit the coverage mismatches in the passing game; especially when a defense goes to nickel a formation which in turn gives the quarterback (Foles) the option to either run or pass.
“Eleven [personnel] is kind of the trend right now,” Ertz told Domowitch, “because, most of the time, you get a defense that has an extra DB, and typically, it’s easier to run the ball against that defense. But, at the same time, when you have two tight ends who can do both [block and catch], I feel like it presents a lot of matchup problems. You can’t be one-dimensional. In years past, it was like that.”
New Orleans will have to be careful with is how they choose to manufacture that pressure. Foles, Ertz and even Goedert do a really good job in the scramble drill.
That TE that’s blocking the blitzer will leak out late and bam, 13 yard gain. #Saints must play disciplined/fast.
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“It depends on who you’re playing and the way you think you match up [best],’’ Groh said. “I think it’s week to week. Sometimes, you have a better advantage in different personnel groups than other. That’s what we’re doing, trying to figure those things out.’’
Obviously given their recent success, the Eagles have in fact figured things out; which is likely why Saints fans can expect Philly in this coming Sunday’s match-up to attack the Saints defense in the middle of the field this time with Goedert becoming a bigger piece of the offense.
As it turns out, Foles in particular has also shown a preference during the Eagles’ current winning streak to attack the right side of the field on passes “outside of the numbers” ― a term that’s used to describe the numbers which are painted on the field that symbolize the line of scrimmage.
(In other words: Foles prefers to target the right side of the field as opposed to throwing to a receiver between those numbers (through the middle of the field), which would be considered “between the numbers”).
Foles is expected to attack the Saints defense probably a little more outside of the numbers than Wentz did in their first match-up; but that doesn’t mean that he’ll shy away from attacking the middle with either Ertz or Goedert; who finished the season with only 33 catches for 334 yards and 4 TD’s but came on strong at the end of the season and played a vital role in Philadelphia’s 16-15 Wild Card win over the Chicago Bears this past Sunday.
For the Black and Gold this coming Sunday, the keys to a victory this Sunday will ultimately be about their capability to adequately pressure Foles with their pass rush; in a concerted effort to make him uncomfortable in the pocket and thereby causing him to be ineffective.
But perhaps more importantly: it means that the Saints linebackers (specifically Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, and Alex Anzalone) will have to hold up in pass coverage against the physically-imposing Eagles tight ends, who along with their equally taller WR corps resemble the Philadelphia 76ers NBA team more so than than they look like a football team at times.