Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Philadelphia Eagles, who have one of the league's most athletic tight ends and know how to use him well.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES' SIGNATURE PLAY: CLUSTER RIGHT, ZACH ERTZ FLEXED OUT TO THE LEFT
The Eagles, of course, do a lot of things well on offense, where they ranked seventh overall in 2017 and third on the ground on their way to a Super Bowl victory. They also have an aggressive strategist in Head Coach Doug Pederson, who isn't shy about inserting trick plays into the game plan – even on the grandest stage – or going for it on fourth down.
One of their consistent strengths on offense, however, is at tight end. Zach Ertz is a fast and athletic pass-catcher in the mold of Greg Olsen, and he finished second in the NFL among tight ends last year with eight touchdowns. He was also third in both receptions (74) and receiving yards (824) on his way to his first Pro Bowl selection.
The Eagles can keep Ertz in line or move him all around the formation, and they also favor two-tight end sets with rookie second-rounder Dallas Goedert, who replaces the departed Trey Burton. The purpose of moving Ertz around is to look for favorable one-on-one matchups against a smaller corner or a slower safety or linebacker. One effective way of doing this is to put a three-man bunch on one side of the formation and isolate Ertz well off the end of the offensive line on the other side.
In fact, the Eagles scored on a play out of this exact alignment in Super Bowl LII. Here's the situation:
Last year's Super Bowl, of course, was one of the most amazing offensive displays in the history of the sport's biggest game. The Eagles won, 41-33, in a contest in which they rolled up an amazing 538 yards and actually got out-gained by the Patriots, who had 613 yards of their own.
Philadelphia was trailing, 33-32, with just 2:25 to play, however. They had chewed up the previous seven minutes on 13 plays, moving from their own 25 to the Patriots' 11, where they faced a third-and-seven. A field goal would put the Eagles in front but would result in a frighteningly small lead against Tom Brady with two minutes to play. Philly needed a touchdown, and they turned to their most reliable weapon on offense, Zach Ertz.
In the picture above you can see the formation I described earlier. Quarterback Nick Foles is in the shotgun and he has running back Corey Clement in the backfield with him. Out to the right of the formation is a three-man bunch, with wide receiver Nelson Agholor on the point, flanked on the left by Burton and on the right by wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. This is "12" personnel because the Eagles have one back and two tight ends on the field, but it's operating more like an "11" package because neither tight end is in line and Ertz is a gifted receiver.
To the left, Ertz is split out all the way pas the numbers. The Patriots have chosen to put safety Devin McCourty on him but, notably, do not have him in press coverage. New England does have its single-high safety, Duron Harmon, shaded over to McCourty's side of the field, but Philadelphia has a plan to get Harmon off that spot and further isolate Ertz on a single defender.
At this point, with Ertz encountering man-to-man but not press coverage, Foles has probably already decided where he's going to go with the ball. There won't be any hesitation or need to look the defense off once he gets the snap.
Just before the snap, Clement goes in motion, running horizontally from his spot just to Foles's left out to the right side. As can be seen in the image above, taken just as the ball is being snapped, Clement has almost reached the numbers on the right side by the time the play has begun.
This is significant because it has caused a reaction by Harmon, who is following Clement across the field and leaving McCourty alone to deal with Ertz. This is an understandable reaction by the safety, because if he doesn't move the Patriots will have three defenders trying to cope with four targets, and a swing pass out to Clement could also be effective.
Again, McCourty is not in press coverage and at the snap he is bent low, preparing to move in either direction depending upon Ertz's route. Everyone in the box, down linemen and linebackers, is moving towards the line at the snap, further emptying out the field where Ertz is going to run.
Ertz runs a simple three-step slant, cutting under McCourty. McCourty stumbles a bit in his break to mirror Ertz, giving the tight end some immediate separation. To increase the distance between him and the defender, and to make sure the throw doesn’t draw him back to a place where McCourty can make a play on the ball, Ertz flattens out his slant route a bit, running more horizontally across the field.
And Foles does indeed look immediately to Ertz, throwing him a hard and on-target pass that Ertz snatches out of the air with two hands. McCourty, still trying to get his footing, desperately tries to keep Ertz out of the end zone, impressively managing to dive at the tight end's legs before he completely stumbles to the ground. The only other defender anywhere close, cornerback Johnson Bademosi is locked up with Burton and is too far away to get to Ertz before he gets to the end zone.
McCourty does manage to make contact with Ertz's leagues, but the athletic tight end has decided to make sure he gets in by diving the last two yards. We switch to the end zone angle above to show Ertz successfully getting the ball across the line, and to emphasize how isolated he and McCourty were from the rest of the action. The Eagles trusted their best offensive weapon to make the play at the most critical point in their entire season and he came through.
Of course, Philadelphia wasn't out of the woods yet. After Ertz's touchdown they attempted a two-point conversion in order to push their lead to seven points but it failed. That left Brady with two minutes and 21 seconds to work with in order to engineer yet another late Super Bowl comeback. Fortunately for the Eagles, defensive end Brandon Graham came to the rescue with the only sack of the game (in 94 combined dropbacks!), forcing a fumble that the Eagles recovered. That led to a field goal and an eight-point lead and the Eagles held on against one last drive in the game's final minute.
The Eagles have one of the league's most dynamic tight ends in Zach Ertz, and many ways to use him. One of the most effective is to bunch three pass-catchers on one side of the formation and isolate Ertz on the other, hoping to get him one-on-one with an overmatched defender.