On Thursday night two teams currently struggling a bit will face off in front of a prime time audience. For the Philadelphia Eagles, their struggles on both sides of the football are well documented. On defense they are having issues in the secondary and Jalen Mills is a frequent target of concern, as is their difficulty to handle the play-action passing game. On offense it starts up front. In his return to action following knee surgery quarterback Carson Wentz has performed well, completing more than 67 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and just one interception. However, he has been under siege in the pocket, having been sacked 12 times in just three games.
Despite the pressure, Wentz does seem to be knocking the rust off in the wake of his injury. I spoke with Michael Kist, who covers the Eagles for Bleeding Green Nation and is one-half of the Kist and Solak Show, and here is what he told me about the Eagles’ young QB:
Carson Wentz started his return by trying to do too much and not taking the easy throws available in some key situations, but since then he’s been a machine that has been let down by sloppy play and penalties from his teammates. The offensive lines’ rough patch, coinciding with Wentz’s penchant for waiting an extra beat for a downfield throw, has led to some fumbles and missed opportunities. Still, Wentz has shown the ability to escape pressure and find success while still possessing a big arm that can make the type of tight window throws that the Eagles offense was missing with Nick Foles. His connection with Zach Ertz has shined and any chemistry concerns between him and the returning Alshon Jeffery have been quickly quieted.
Kist’s mention of Ertz is going to transition us to the focal point of this piece. While this is the “Scouting the Signal-Callers” series we are going to take it in more of a scheme direction this week, and look at how the Eagles utilize — and align -- their tight ends. This makes sense when you consider that Ertz is their most targeted receiver on the year, and rookie Dallas Goedert is seeing more and more looks now that Wentz is back in the lineup.
Given the usage that Wentz gets out of his tight ends, it should be no surprise that the Eagles use a few different formations to scheme Ertz and Goedert open in the passing game. One of those is Y-Iso, a 3x1 formation that has a tight end as the single receiver to one side of the field. Philadelphia will use this with multiple personnel groupings, so even if both players are on the field they might still go Y-Iso with one of them isolated on either the left or the right.
These formations, particularly when done using 11 offensive personnel, put the defense into a situation where they might have to dictate pre-snap the coverage. Should Wentz see a linebacker walk outside to cover the isolated tight end, he can be pretty sure the defense is in man coverage. Similarly, should he defense keep a cornerback on the outside over Ertz or Goedert, he can be confident some sort of zone scheme is in play. Defenses can disguise that look by then playing man coverage with a CB on a tight end, but that might open up a mismatch elsewhere on the field for Wentz to exploit.
Here an example of the Eagles using this formation here in 2018.
This play comes from Wentz’s 2018 debut, against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are a Cover 2 heavy team, so Philadelphia looked to attack the “turkey hole” behind the cornerbacks and between the safety and the sideline early and often this game. On this play they align using the Y-Iso formation and with 11 offensive personnel. Goedert (No. 88) is the isolated tight end on the right, and he runs the corner route on a Flat-7 Smash concept, a well-known Cover 2 beater. Running back Corey Clement (No. 30) releases to the flat. Backside the Eagles run a Levels concept:
Pre-snap Wentz sees the two deep safeties, as well as the cornerback aligned across from Goedert. That gives him a good indication that the Colts are in Cover 2 here, and he looks right to Goedert in the turkey hole:
This next example comes from the Eagles’ loss in Week 5 to the Vikings and is an example of Philadelphia using Y-Iso despite having multiple tight ends in the game. They align with Goedert as the single receiver to the right, but Ertz (No. 86) is part of a three-receiver alignment on the left:
Goedert and Ertz run matching curl routes, and Wentz does a very good job of sliding and buying time in the pocket before hitting Ertz with a big gain:
Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 4 the Eagles used Y-Iso to get Ertz matched up with safety Kevin Byard (No. 31) on the backside of a 3x1 formation. Even though the Eagles were backed up in their own territory, they came out throwing and Wentz looked to Ertz on the out pattern:
Y-Iso is, as we will see, just one way the Eagles align their tight ends to get some favorable opportunities in the passing game. They will use it with either Goedert or Ertz, and will use this formation anywhere on the field.
The Eagles also align their tight ends on the wing a great deal, and even employ a Double-Y Wing alignment with both Ertz and Goedert that they can use to attack defenses in the passing game with both tight ends on the same side of the formation. For example, they used the Double-Y Wing alignment on this Divide concept against the Indianapolis Colts, coming out in this formation:
As you can see, Goedert breaks to the outside on a corner route while Ertz attacks the middle of the field on a post route. Once more the Colts are in a Cover 2 coverage, meaning that the middle of the field is open (MOFO) on this play. A post is a perfect route to use to attack a MOFO coverage, and that’s where Wentz goes with the football:
The Eagles also use this alignment to help with pass protection, and for a team that is struggling to keep their quarterback upright, it can provide a boost in creating a stout pocket. On this first-and-10 play against the Colts, Goedert and Ertz align in the Double-Y wing with a receiver outside of them. The Eagles run a flood concept to the left, and Goedert is tasked with blocking the defensive end first before releasing to the flat:
Goedert executes his block and then releases to the flat. Despite the play taking a long time to develop, Wentz is operating from a clean pocket, helped in part by Goedert’s block and release. That gives the left tackle time to set up and then engage the defensive end, and the rookie TE is then open in the flat for an easy seven-yard gain.
The Eagles also run a number of spacing concepts, and even when they look to stretch a defense horizontally they will use the Double-Y wing formation to condense the defense prior to running the concept. This is an example of this, from Philadelphia’s Week 5 tilt against the Vikings:
As you can see the formation condenses the defense, bringing the cornerback down near the dual tight ends. Both of them release vertically, but Ertz runs a deeper curl route while Goedert breaks to the outside. The CB decides to jam Ertz, which creates an opportunity for Goedert to get separation on his quick flat route for an easy pitch and catch for Wentz.
Finally, when the Eagles use a single tight end in a wing alignment, that does not mean you can take their eyes off of them. Philadelphia will use this alignment with either Ertz or Goedert to get them chances in the passing game. Wentz and the Eagles narrowed the gap against Minnesota late last week on a corner route to Ertz in the red zone, with the TE coming out of a wing alignment:
In addition, they will use wing alignments to help get their tight ends involved in their RPO-based passing game. On this play against the Titans Ertz is aligned in a wing to the left. The Eagles show run inside, even pulling a lineman to set up the run look. But Wentz pulls and looks to throw to his tight end. As the linebacker vacates underneath, Ertz is wide open:
As we have seen, part of the goal around these formations and packages is to get open looks for Wentz and his tight ends. This is just one more example of the Eagles achieving that goal.
Thursday night pairs two teams who are struggling right now. While the defending Super Bowl Champions might be teetering a big given their protection struggles and some mounting injuries, it is clear from studying Wentz -- and his tight ends -- that their offense is just a few steps away from rounding back into form. Whether that happens Thursday night or not remains to be seen.