PHILADELPHIA - Zach Ertz's numbers looked good. And Ertz fantasy owners were likely very pleased with what Ertz provided on Sunday, catching nine passes on 11 targets for 94 yards.
But, as one of the only viable receiving options in the Eagles offensive huddle, the Patriots rendered Ertz's contributions largely meaningless. Without starting receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, the Patriots were able to focus on Ertz and help stymie the Philadelphia passing game. Carson Wentz completed 20 of his 40 attempts for 214 yards and a touchdown. Including the five sacks he absorbed, Wentz averaged just 3.9 yards per dropback.
Despite the injuries to his offensive unit, Eagles coach Doug Pederson believed they'd be able to muster more than that paltry figure in their 17-10 defeat.
"We feel like," Pederson said, "with Zach and Dallas [Goedert], we can do some things . . . Listen, give them credit. They did a nice job on defense kind of taking those players away. We knew that coming into this game, and we just didn't make enough plays."
Ertz, in particular, was kept quiet early on.
He caught three passes for 16 yards, none of which resulted in first downs, through the first quarter. He helped get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own end zone during their long first-half touchdown drive, but didn't touch the football beyond his team's 26-yard line on that series.
In the second quarter, Ertz caught back-to-back passes for 20 yards, but the Eagles punted two plays later. Ertz caught one pass in the third quarter for one yard, bringing his three-quarter total to six catches, 37 yards.
At one point, it looked like Patriots coverages were starting to get to him.
On Philadelphia's final third-down snap of the third quarter, Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore provided physical one-on-one man-to-man coverage. Wentz went elsewhere with the football, the pass fell incomplete, and Ertz appealed to the closest official for a penalty flag. He didn't get one, and then he and Gilmore exchanged words as the Eagles punt team took the field.
"He was crying," Gilmore said. "He do that on film a lot. If you get into him. If he don't get the ball or he don't get a call, he'll cry. But he's a good receiver. He's a good tight end. He's a great player . . . He's a great player, but when he don't get his way, he'll complain to the ref. But who don't do that?"
The Patriots plan for Ertz was, essentially, to have Gilmore take Ertz when he was clearly going to be a receiver - second-and-long, third downs, obvious passing situations late in the game with the Eagles trying to come back. Gilmore had Ertz in man-to-man on a second-and-eight play early in the game, but then Ertz was bracketed on the subsequent third down and Gilmore took receiver Jordan Matthews. Jonathan Jones took Ertz on a first-down snap early in the game. Safeties Devin McCourty and Terrence Brooks had Ertz at different points in the game as well.
It was a varied plan, one that the Patriots were able to execute thanks to their polished system of communication.
"It's from coaching down," Gilmore said. "Sometimes I was gonna be on him. Sometimes the safeties was gonna be on him. You can't line up in one thing the whole time. You gotta keep them thinking. That's one thing we did today. He didn't know who was gonna be on him at certain times. It helped out a lot."
Gilmore also had the benefit of getting the occasional chip at the line of scrimmage on Ertz. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, playing on the edge, knocked Ertz off of his route immediately during a third-and-nine play and Gilmore took him from there.
Though Ertz is essentially a 6-foot-5, 250-pound receiver in certain situations, Gilmore said he couldn't play him like the receivers he typically shadows on a weekly basis.
"I gotta slow myself down a little bit because they're so slow," Gilmore said of covering tight ends. "But they're big and they push off a lot. Just gotta slow myself down a little bit because I'm used to covering faster guys. If I do that, I can play them pretty tight . . . "
"You can see it on film. Ertz is a fast guy, but like I said, I've guarded faster guys. I gotta really slow down and not get on top like I play receivers. Let him beat me a little bit. If I play on top he'll push me off. That's the game plan I had."
Ertz came alive late in the game, catching three of five targets in the fourth quarter for 57 yards and three first downs as the Eagles pushed the pace. Philly had a chance to tie it late with a heave to Nelson Agholor on fourth down, but it bounced off of Agholor's hands and to the turf.
The fact that Ertz wasn't the one to be the target with Wentz looking for a critical strike meant that, in some respects, despite what the box score would tell you, the Patriots did what they wanted with Philly's top offensive weapon.
Brooks, who played for the Eagles in 2016, said having some experience seeing Ertz in practice years ago might've helped him Sunday. He played 35 snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, which was his second-highest total of the season. With Patrick Chung inactive due to injury, Brooks stepped into an increased role.
"That comes with film study and practice reps and things like that and for the most part confidence," Brooks said of taking Ertz. "You gotta be confident that whoever lines up across from you, you can take him on. I was up for the challenge, man. I was excited about it. That's one of the best tight ends in the game. I was very happy to get that chance to keep going against him . . .
"He made some nice catches, other ones with tight coverage. But I give it to him. I got a lot of respect for that guy and what he does in this league, but I feel like it's on me, whoever I line up across, to shut them down. That's my mindset every time."
Ertz wasn't totally shut down. His final stats would suggest as much. But he was shut down on third down (zero catches) and in the red zone (zero catches). He didn't have a catch in Patriots territory.
Whether it was Brooks in coverage or Gilmore or McCourty, or someone else, the Patriots took Ertz away when Wentz needed him most and won. No matter what the box score says, they'll take that.
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