Eagles tight ends catch Foles attention

Posted: December 03, 2013

THE TIGHT ENDS hadn't been a huge part of the Eagles' passing attack in the first 11 games. Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey had been collectively targeted just 73 times and had 40 receptions for 595 yards and four touchdowns.

But they had a pretty good idea that was going to change yesterday against the Arizona Cardinals.

"We thought we would be used more this game because of the way they play their defense," Ertz said. "They put a lot of safeties and linebackers on us [in] man-to-man coverage. We think against any safety we can win and get open. Nick [Foles] made some great throws today."

Ertz had five catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles' 24-21 win. Celek had four catches for 29 yards and a touchdown.

And while Casey didn't catch any passes, he put the game on ice with less than 2 minutes to go when he drew a defensive holding penalty from Cardinals linebacker Matt Shaughnessy on a third-and-4 play at the the Arizona 9-yard line that allowed the Eagles to run out the clock and notch their fourth straight win.

"We had good matchups outside," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, referring to cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Jerraud Powers against wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. "But we did not handle their tight ends well, and that was pretty obvious."

Jackson and Cooper combined for just six catches for 84 yards. But in this game, the Eagles didn't really need them.

"We felt they have some really good corners, starting with Peterson," coach Chip Kelly said. "So trying to get [the tight ends] matched up on some safeties and some linebackers [was what we wanted to do].

"We felt like Brent and Ertz, and then obviously the big play by Casey at the end there, we just thought we had some plays in there to the tight ends [where] we could get them in base personnel and then try to take advantage of that. And those guys did. They contributed and we feel like we have three that are talented, and when the matchups present themselves, we can exploit it."

The Cardinals came into the game with the league's eighth-ranked defense. They were eighth in the league in opponent passer rating (77.8). But they have struggled all season with opposing tight ends.

Nine of the 19 touchdown passes they had given up had been to tight ends. Now it's 12 of 22. Tight ends were averaging 78.4 yards per game against them.

"We knew coming into the game that we were going to have to step up and play big," said Celek, who caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Foles with 15 seconds left in the first half to give the Eagles a 17-7 lead.

"We were able to take advantage of some of the things they were giving us. It may be different next week. They were bringing a lot of guys down in the box to stop our run. On some of them, Zach was able to get behind them. He did a good job. There were some great play calls in there in certain situations when they were in certain defenses."

It became pretty clear from the start that the Eagles' tight ends were going to be busier than usual. The Eagles' first three offensive plays all were passes to Celek. The first went for 3 yards. The second was an incompletion. On the third, Celek turned a short pass from Foles into a 16-yard gain, dragging half the Arizona defense for about 10 of those yards.

On the next play, Foles hit a wide-open Ertz for a 6-yard touchdown after freezing the safety with a fake pitch to LeSean McCoy to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.

"We had our number called early and Nick did a heck of a job," Ertz said. "He made a lot of throws today. He was a warrior in the pocket and running the ball, which was impressive."

Foles completed 21 of 34 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns. Twenty-one of his attempts were targeted at the tight ends or McCoy, a running back. Fourteen of his 21 completions were to Ertz, Celek and McCoy.

Ertz put the Eagles up, 24-7, early in the third quarter when he beat Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson on a corner post route for a 24-yard touchdown.

"The first [touchdown] was play-action to the left," Ertz said. "The safety kind of froze just enough and I ran to the corner. The second one, Nick just made a heckuva throw."

Said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur: "Our tight ends are always involved in the route combinations. But they were a little more primary this week. I thought Nick did a good job, and I thought [the tight ends] did a good job, because they're a lot of pressure in the red area. Typically, when you face defenses like that, that tight end matchup can be good."

The people who scratched their head and wondered why the Eagles selected a seemingly non-essential item like Ertz in the second round of the draft last April rather than a safety or a corner or a pass-rushing linebacker, aren't wondering any more.

Eighteen of the rookie's 26 receptions have resulted in first downs or touchdowns (three). His 11 third-down receptions are second only to Jackson's 12.

"You've seen him do things better each week," Shurmur said. "Today it paid off with some really good production in the passing game."

"He's a great player," Celek said. "He's going to continue to get better. Every game you see him improve, improve, improve."

Both Kelly and Shurmur said Ertz benefited greatly from last week's bye.

"For a rookie, that late-season bye is huge," Shurmur said. "I felt like all of our rookies, while none of them probably will admit it, I felt they all needed some time away. Zach benefited from it and his training this week was good."

Said Kelly: "If you're a rookie, this season is a lot different than the college season. You have 16 games under your belt at this point."

Ertz said he went home to California during the bye week and just relaxed with his family.

"The late bye was great," he said. "A lot of us young players went home. I saw my family. I had a little pre-Thanksgiving meal last Sunday. It was nice to take your mind off of football for a few days. I think it really helped me."

Ertz is anxious to keep improving, anxious to have more days like yesterday.

"I just want to gain all of the coaches and Nick's trust," he said. I think that was a big step for me today. I'm definitely not satisfied. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."

DID YOU NOTICE?

* The Cardinals were without their top running back, rookie Andre Ellington, who injured his left knee in practice earlier in the week.

* The fake pitch to LeSean McCoy on Nick Foles’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz on the Eagles’ first possession, which froze the safety who was responsible for covering Ertz.

* The impressive after-the-catch run by tight end Brent Celek on his 16-yard catch on the Eagles’ third play of the game. He dragged three defenders with him for nearly 10 yards.

* The costly drop by Cardinals tight end Rob Housler on third-and-4 at the Arizona 47 on the Cardinals’ third possession in the first quarter. He would’ve had a first down and more and put Arizona in Eagles territory. Instead, the Cardinals had to punt.

* The nice special teams play by Colt Anderson late in first quarter. He tackled Patrick Peterson for a 3-yard gain on a punt return after Peterson had slipped away from Brandon Boykin. If Anderson hadn’t tripped him up, Peterson had a chance for a big gain.

* There was no replay review on Nate Allen’s first-quarter interception, even though it appeared Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd had made contact with Allen after he intercepted the pass and was falling to the ground. Allen ended up with a 43-yard return on the play.

* Brad Smith replaced Brandon Boykin on a third-quarter kickoff return. Smith had a 31-yard return on the play.

* The Eagles won just their second replay challenge of season in the second quarter when they challenged a spot on a catch by wide receiver Andre Roberts that had given the Cardinals an apparent first down.

* The terrific catch-and-run by Riley Cooper that set up Alex Henery’s second-quarter field goal. Nick Foles overthrew him, but Cooper jumped and made a one-handed grab, then spun away from cornerback Jerraud Powers for a 24-yard gain that gave the Eagles a first-and-goal at the Arizona 6.

* The botched wildcat play that Chip Kelly insists wasn’t a wildcat play right after Riley Cooper’s catch. Brad Smith lined up at quarterback and Foles near the right sideline as a wide receiver. Smith fumbled the shotgun snap, then was tackled for a 4-yard loss.

* The Eagles lined up Lane Johnson in the slot as a tight end at least three times.

* The missed block by Riley Cooper on Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu on a bubble screen to DeSean Jackson. Mathieu hammered Jackson for a 3-yard loss.

* Brandon Boykin was picked by his own man, Bradley Fletcher, on Carson Palmer's 23-yard touchdown throw to Michael Floyd in the third quarter. The Cards lined up in bunch formation with Andre Roberts at the point. Boykin was responsible for Roberts. But when he turned to run with him, he ran into Fletcher, who was covering one of the other receivers in the bunch set.

* Patrick Peterson's curious decision to let Donnie Jones’ punt bounce late in third quarter. There was a penalty called on the the play, which was why Peterson let it bounce. But the flag was on Arizona and the Eagles had the option to decline the penalty, which they did since Jones’ punt ended up traveling 69 yards.

BY THE NUMBERS

* Nick Foles’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz was only the Eagles’ third first-possession score of the season.

* Just two of Donnie Jones’ eight punts were returned. That makes just five of his last 29 attempts that have been returned. Jones has a 44.3-yard net average in the Eagles’ last eight games.

* Donnie Jones put seven of his eight punts inside the 20. That’s the third highest single-game total by an NFL punter since the league started keeping track of the stat in 1976. Jones has put 29 punts inside the 20 this season, which is the second most in franchise history. Jeff Feagles had 31 in 1993.

* The Eagles forced three turnovers and didn’t have any themselves. They have a plus-13 turnover differential in their seven wins and a minus-6 differential in their five losses.

* Nick Foles extended his streak of passes without an interception to 233, which is a new team record. The old record was 224 by Mike Vick.

* Nick Foles has a 144.2 passer rating in the last four games. That’s the sixth highest four-game rating in the NFL since 1960.

* Trent Cole had two sacks for the second game in a row. It’s the third time in his career that he’s had multiple sacks in back-to-back games. He now has 76 career sacks, which ties him with Clyde Simmons for No. 2 on the team’s all-time sack list, behind Hall of Famer Reggie White (124).

* The Eagles now have held eight straight opponents to 21 points or less. The last time they did that was 2003.

* For the seventh straight game, the Eagles did not allow a score on their opponents’ first possession. They’ve allowed just 3.4 yards per play and given up just eight first downs on those seven first possessions.

* The Eagles gave up two touchdown passes on third down. That’s as many as the Eagles had given up in their first 11 games.

* The Eagles ran 73 offensive plays against the Cardinals. That’s their fourth highest play total of the season. They are averaging 66 plays per game this season.

* Thirty-four of the Eagles’ 73 plays were run plays. For the season, 370 of 792 plays, or 46.7 percent, have been run plays.

* The Eagles have just eight giveaways in the last nine games. They’ve lost just three fumbles in the last nine games.

* Seventeen of the Eagles’ 34 touchdown drives this season have been four plays or less. Eleven of those 34 have been 2 minutes or less.

* The Eagles have been outscored 92-58 in the fourth quarter this season. They haven’t scored a point in the fourth quarter in their last four games (outscored 33-0) and still have managed to win all four.


On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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