Tight ends' time will come

Posted: September 27, 2013

YOU NO DOUBT have been wondering why there have been so few sightings of tight ends James Casey and Zach Ertz so far this season.

Casey, who signed a 3-year, $12 million deal with the Eagles in March that included nearly $3 million in guaranteed money, and Ertz, who the Eagles gobbled up with the 35th overall pick in the April draft, have played a combined total of 62 snaps in the first three games.

Ertz has played 54 of those 62 snaps and has four catches for 74 yards. Casey has played just eight snaps and has been targeted only once by quarterback Michael Vick. That was that low goal-line throw against the Chargers in Week 2 that Casey couldn't quite hang on to.

What gives? Blame it on LeSean McCoy.

The Eagles have been playing primarily "11" personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) in the first three games, which has prompted opposing defenses to counter with sub-packages featuring five defensive backs.

Nickel is good against the pass, but not so good against the run. It's like wearing suede in the rain. One less hard-to-block big-body. One more scrawny 180-pound corner.

Behind his athletic offensive line, McCoy has rushed for a league-best 395 yards. He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry, and 6.9 when the Eagles have 11 personnel on the field, which has been on 85 percent of their offensive plays.

"It's been a favorable matchup for us in the first three games," Chip Kelly said yesterday of his 11 personnel vs. nickel.

Three hundred fifty-one of McCoy's 395 rushing yards have come out of 11 personnel. Twenty of his 62 carries have gained 7 yards or more. Ten have been good for double digits. He's 7-for-7 converting situations of 2 yards or less into first downs. He's on pace to rush for 2,100 yards. The NFL record is 2,105, by Eric Dickerson.

Given that the Eagles are first in the league in rushing and eighth in scoring, Kelly isn't fretting over the fact that Casey and Ertz haven't been on the field much or that they and starting tight end Brent Celek, who has played 187 of 198 snaps, have been targeted just 16 times.

"We have plays designed for the tight ends," Kelly said. "I mean, right now we're not sitting in our offensive staff room saying we're not getting a lot of production offensively. I think we're running the ball very effectively and throwing the ball very effectively."

The Eagles are second in the league in total offense. They're averaging 461.7 yards per game, which is just 25 yards less than Sunday's opponent, the Broncos.

If not for their seven turnovers and drive-stalling penalties, the Eagles might own the league's top offense heading into Sunday's Mile High showdown.

Veteran slot receiver Jason Avant has 11 catches, seven for first downs, and is on pace for his fourth straight 50-catch season. He's a dependable blocker, who has played all but 21 of the Eagles' 198 snaps.

"Jason is playing at a high level," Kelly said. "If we put a second tight end in the game, are we taking Jason out of the game? Do we want to do that?"

As the season goes on, the Eagles almost certainly will play more 12 (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) and 13 (1 back, 3 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) personnel.

Defenses will start to use their base package more to stop McCoy, and Kelly will try to create mismatches with his athletic tight ends on linebackers and safeties.

"We're going to get those guys involved at some point," Vick said. "Our coach knows exactly when he wants to incorporate those guys. But for the most part, they are in the game plan and they will be a big part of this offense at some point."

Said Kelly: "A lot of times it becomes a match game. What matchups do you want to be in? What matchups do you think are more favorable to you? You're kind of looking at how people try to defend different formations and different sets to try and get tendencies in terms of how they're going to deploy their personnel. So, sometimes you, by your personnel, can at least dictate what's going to be in the game."

Right now, Kelly likes what's in the game just fine.

Plays not seconds

Kelly has made it clear that he cares more about the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker than he does about time of possession. And sadly, I suspect he doesn't care much at all about the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

So, the fact that the Eagles currently rank dead last in the league in time of possession (24:25) probably isn't keeping Kelly up at night, even though it means his defense has been on the field for more than 35 1/2 minutes a game in the first 3 weeks.

What does concern Kelly, though, is that thanks to seven turnovers and problems converting any third-down situation longer than 4 yards, his up-tempo offense is averaging just 66 plays per game, which is tied for 15th in the league. And his defense is 31st in plays run against (75.6). Only the Bills' defense has been on the field for more snaps (78.3).

"Right now, we're not running enough plays on offense," said Kelly, whose offense ran 53 offensive plays in the first two quarters of the Redskins game and just 145 in the 10 quarters since. "We're turning the ball over too much offensively. We're not executing the way we're supposed to execute. And that's what we have to do to keep our defense off the field."

The Eagles' seven giveaways are the fifth most in the NFL. They are a respectable 11th in third-down efficiency (41.7 percent), but have converted just four of 21 third downs of 5 yards or more. Vick is 30th in the league in third-down passing (47.3 rating). He's completed just seven of 20 third-down attempts. On third-and-5 or more, he's just 3-for-13 with an interception and three sacks and just two first downs.

Figuring the Eagles

* The Eagles' average field position in their Week 1 win over the Redskins was the 38.9 yard line. In their two losses to the Chargers and the Chiefs, it was the 21.4.

* In their first three games, the Eagles have had six touchdown drives that lasted 2 minutes or less. Last year, they had seven under 2 minutes the entire season. They've already had four touchdown drives of three plays or less, which is just one less than they had all last year.

* The Eagles have scored 14 points off five takeaways in the first three games. Their opponents have scored 27 points off of their eight turnovers.

* Trent Cole has played 195 snaps in the first three games. He's dropped into coverage just 17 times (8.7 percent). Connor Barwin, who has played 231 snaps, has dropped into coverage 58 times (25.1 percent).

* Rookie cornerback Jordan Poyer played 17 snaps in Week 1, most of them when Cary Williams sat out a couple of series in the second half with cramps. He hasn't played a snap the last two games.

* Mychal Kendricks and Patrick Chung have combined for 14 of the Eagles' 28 missed tackles.

* The Eagles have had just one three-and-out in 38 possessions.

* The Eagles have scored on their first possession just three times in the last 19 games. They have eight first-possession turnovers in those 19 games, including two in three games this season.

* Opposing tight ends have 19 catches for 225 yards and no touchdowns against the Eagles in the first three games. That's a 101-catch, 1,200-yard pace. Last year, tight ends caught 71 passes for 787 yards and four TDs against the Eagles. The year before: 66-765-5.

THIS AND THAT

* LeSean McCoy dined with his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, Tuesday at the Redstone Grill in Marlton, M.J. The 25-year-old Eagles running back, who leads the NFL in rushing, recently bought a house in the Little Mill section of Marlton. Rosenhaus said the dinner was not contract-related. McCoy is in the second year of a 5-year, $45million deal, nearly $21 million of which his guaranteed.

* Steve Sabol, the late NFL Films president who died 2 years ago of cancer, will be featured on “A Football Life” on the NFL Network on Tuesday at 9 p.m.

* Most East Coast teams fly out 2 days before a game when they are crossing multiple time zones. But Eagles aren’t flying to Denver until tomorrow afternoon, and also won’t leave for their Nov. 3 game in Oakland until the day before. That’s just the way the Chipmeister rolls. “We’ll leave the day before the game,” he said. “Jet-lag doesn’t affect you because of the time of the kick. It’s a 4:25 kickoff [in the east].  We just stay on East Coast time. I think where it does affect you is when you’re going [west to east]. All of a sudden, when you’re going to play it’s a 1 o’clock kick, which is a 10 o’ clock kick [on the West Coast.] The pregame meal is 4 hours earlier. SO the pregame meal is at 5. You’re getting up at 5. When we’ve gone to play in different time zones [at Oregon], you’re only in there for a certain amount of time. It takes you about a week to get acclimated. We’ll stay on an East Coast time schedule when we go out there [to Denver and Oakland.] It shouldn’t affect us form that point.”

* Andy Reid was regularly lambasted by Eagles fans during his 14 years in Philly for not being terribly forthcoming during his news conferences. Even at his worst, though, Reid paled in comparison to Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Here’s a word-for-word exchange between Belichick and a reporter  at his Monday Q&A this week. Keep in mind, this is a coach whose team is 3-0:

How close was Rob Gronkowski to playing yesterday?

I don’t know. He was inactive.

Did he have a shot to play?

He was inactive.

Going into the day was here a chance he’d play?

He was inactive for the game.

What about Danny Amendola?

He was inactive, too?

I know they were inactive.

They were inactive so they didn’t play.

I think you have an idea how close they were (to playing).

Well, they weren’t able to play. What do you want, percentage points? They couldn’t play.

Going into the day, did you know they couldn’t play?

They were inactive.

That doesn’t answer my question. 

They were inactive. It’s as simple as that.

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