Mike Sielski: Eagles need to get tight end Ertz more involved

Zach Ertz is a smart guy who went to Stanford University and who wants to be a good teammate, so he held his tongue early Monday morning at AT&T Stadium.

The Eagles had lost to the Cowboys in overtime, and Ertz was pretty much a phantom again, as he has been since the Eagles’ first game this season. Carson Wentz had targeted him four times Sunday, and though Ertz had caught all four of those passes, the Eagles had gained just 19 yards from them. That meager production was part of a larger pattern in the game: Wentz had thrown 43 passes but accumulated just 202 yards, an average of fewer than 5 yards per attempt. Over his three previous seasons, Ertz had averaged 12 yards a reception – not bad for a tight end. This season, he has just 15 catches for 150 yards in five games. Couldn’t the Eagles, if they wanted to complete more passes for greater yardage, look to Ertz more often?

“That’s not up to me,” he said. “I’m just out there trying to do my job, block to the best of my abilities, help them when my name is called and it’s a pass play, and catch the ball.”

Among the maladies afflicting the Eagles’ sickly offense, Ertz’s relative disappearance is unique and particularly challenging to cure. There are a few reasons for this, starting with the nature of the problem: It’s less a cause of the Eagles’ struggles than it is an unfortunate consequence born of those other problems.

Ertz was targeted seven times with six catches, and 58 yards in the Eagles’ opener, a 29-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns. He then sat out the next two games, both of which the Eagles won, with a rib injury. He returned to the lineup Oct. 9 and caught three passes for 37 yards against the Detroit Lions. But he has been targeted 10 times for six catches over the subsequent three games. Why? Well, consider the chain of events and the circumstances.

That loss to the Lions was Lane Johnson’s final game before the beginning of his 10-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance banned by the NFL. With rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai starting in Johnson’s place at right tackle, coach Doug Pederson has used Ertz and Brent Celek more frequently, either to block in pass protection or to chip an oncoming defensive end or linebacker before Ertz or Celek embarks on a pass route. Such is the trickle-down effect of losing Johnson, one of the better right tackles in the NFL (and, given that this is his second PED suspension, one of the dafter) and the Eagles’ best lineman.

When allowed to function solely as a receiver, Ertz has gotten open. In those situations, two factors have prevented Wentz from finding him: The Eagles’ pass protection has broken down, and in reading the opposing defense, Wentz hasn’t gone through his receiver progressions quickly enough to get to Wentz, who is often the second or third option on a particular play.

“I never second-guess the coaches,” Ertz said. “We never second-guess Carson. That’s just the way the games have gone.”

Maybe there’s more to it, though. Maybe teams also know that Ertz can hurt them – he led the team with 75 receptions last season – and they’re scheming to stop him, to force Wentz to throw the ball to his running backs and wide receivers. Are they?

“No,” Ertz said.

For the Eagles – and perhaps for Ertz, too, though he’d never admit it – the most frustrating part of Ertz’s decline this season has to be that it is a terrific time to be a pass-catching tight end in the NFL, and the Eagles have a history of using a tight end to help develop a prospective franchise quarterback. If Donovan McNabb is supposed to be a model for Wentz, then it’s worth remembering that in 2000, McNabb’s first full season as a starter, the Eagles’ leading receiver was Chad Lewis, and it wasn’t close. Lewis had 69 catches, 13 more than the next-closest Eagle, and if it was easy back then to poke fun at Lewis’ tendency to fall to the ground immediately after making a catch, at least McNabb could count on Lewis to catch the ball (unlike Wentz and his wide receivers).

Of course, because Jon Runyan was the Eagles’ starting right tackle in 2000, Lewis didn’t bear the same blocking responsibilities then that Ertz does now. (Man, Lane Johnson’s stupidity really is the root of all that ails the Eagles.) But the Eagles didn’t sign Ertz to that five-year contract in January just to block. They envision him as part of the league-wide trend accenting tight ends as skilled, dynamic weapons. Look at Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett in New England. Look at Jordan Reed in Washington. Look at Jimmy Graham and Jason Witten for years and years. Ertz isn’t a great tight end, just a good one, but he can do more for the Eagles than he has, and it couldn’t hurt for Pederson to get creative in the name of getting him more involved.

“Comparison is the number-one form of misery,” Ertz said. “I’m not going to sit here and look at Gronk and Martellus and say, ‘We should be doing that’ because I can’t control that. My job is to be the best tight end I can be, be prepared if and when my number’s called. That’s all I can focus on right now.”

It was exactly what you’d expect a smart Stanford guy and a good teammate to say. He just doesn’t want to have to keep saying it.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mike Sielski is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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