Zach Ertz arrived in New Orleans nearly two months ago fresh off one of the most dominant games for a tight end in recent memory. He caught 14 of Carson Wentz’s 32 completions, good for 145 yards and two scores. The performance put him on pace to shatter the NFL single-season record for receptions by a tight end by more than 20 catches.
But the Eagles still lost — a painful divisional defeat to Dallas that gave the defending Super Bowl champs a losing record entering the second half of the season.
And any momentum the sixth-year tight end could have strung together shattered in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Three targets, two catches, 15 yards — all three season-lows.
The All-Pro tight end had caught double-digit balls four times before that Nov. 18 loss — all four Eagles defeats. In the midst of a Super Bowl title defense, Philadelphia had yet to figure how to win with Ertz in the middle of a historic season.
Standing in the visitors locker room, he made a promise. No matter his role, no matter his production, the Eagles would find a way to right the ship.
“In the end, the effort is going to be there, and effort masks a lot of things in this league. We’re going to go down swinging,” he said. “Whether I have to have two catches to win a game, whether I have to have 14 catches to win a game, it’s irrelevant to me. I just want to win football games.”
True to Ertz’s word, Philadelphia has won six of its past seven games, including last week’s wild-card road win in Chicago, granting the Eagles another shot at one of the league’s hottest defenses.
His varied performance during this run gives the Saints a much tougher task to dethrone the champs this time around.
In the biggest moments of his six-year career, Ertz has proven a trusted option when Eagles quarterback Nick Foles needed him most.
With Philadelphia trailing New England by a point late in the fourth quarter of last year’s Super Bowl, the Eagles backup quarterback knew where to look when he was in a bind. First, it was a 7-yard catch on third-and-6. Then, it was a 2-yard snag on fourth-and-1. Finally, with Ertz set out wide, the pair connected on third-and-7 for an 11-yard go-ahead touchdown that would gift Philadelphia with its first Lombardi trophy.
This came four years after Ertz caught a go-head touchdown from Foles with five minutes to go at home in the 2013 wild-card round against the Saints, a game New Orleans pulled out 26-24.
There is a reason Ertz ranks third in the league in 2018 in passes caught inside an opponent’s 20-yard-line and fourth in fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“He seems to kind of be that guy that you know exactly where he’s going to be,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after a win against the Texans three weeks ago. “For the quarterbacks to have that type of guy, it just gives you that little comfort, especially in crucial moments.”
So it was curious when that trusty receiving option blossomed into the team's clear No. 1 option with teammates like Alshon Jeffrey and Golden Tate — both players who had led a team in receptions in their careers.
It appeared things started to boil over when ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported at the end of November that a frustrated Philadelphia team source asserted the team was targeting Ertz too often, disrupting the rhythm of the Super Bowl champs. At that point, after the team’s win over the Giants that pulled them to 5-6, Ertz had 111 targets through 11 games — one short of his career-high — even though he’d caught 76 percent of those balls.
You didn’t hear whispers about Julio Jones, Adam Thielen or Antonio Brown — all three upper-echelon receivers in the NFL whose teams missed the postseason in 2018 — catching too many balls, so why Ertz?
“Everyone knows Zach’s abilities out there. Everyone knows he’s a tough cover for a corner or safety or whoever they want to put on him,” said Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz in response. “We trust him to make plays and get open. And he’s done a great job of that.”
Three weeks later, sitting at 6-7 against the 11-2 Rams in Los Angeles, needing a win to stay alive, the Eagles first proved they could win without Ertz’s high volume. He caught just three balls for 22 yards with Foles at quarterback. Meanwwhile, Jeffrey racked up his best game as an Eagles — eight catches for 160 yards.
But Ertz still was targeted seven times, and you could argue the Philadelphia offense was still in-flux with Foles readjusting to the starting role, similar to the New Orleans game — Tate’s second game as an Eagle.
The next week, Philadelphia won a different way. Ertz carved up Houston’s zone coverage with 12 catches for 110 yards and a pair of scores in the 32-30 win that put the team back in serious contention for a playoff spot.
Those two performances showed, like Saints fans understand well, that a well-oiled offense with a dominant receiver is hard to stop. When defenses drape Michael Thomas, Drew Brees often manages to find his secondary options, and the worst thing you can do is leave Thomas one-on-one.
Ertz's build is similar to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski with more speed, making linebackers and safeties outmatched in coverage when Ertz and Foles are in sync.
“If people roll down safeties and treat him more as a receiver, he’s going to be able to beat them with length,” Saints tight end Dan Arnold said. “On a linebacker, he’s going to beat you with speed. No matter who it is, he has the advantage.”
“For us, it’s about trying to get hands on him and make him earn every single catch,” added Saints linebacker A.J. Klein. “He’s a very physical player. He’s savvy on top of his routes. He catches contested balls. You cannot say enough about him as a pass catcher.”
Recently, the Eagles have favored the “12” personnel grouping — one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers — more than any NFL team since Week 14 at 44 percent of their offensive snaps, more than three times the league average. With Dallas Goedert, the Eagles rookie tight end that Klein called “basically Ertz with a bigger frame”, and a bullpen of wideouts to swap in-and-out, the scheme creates more mismatches than with Ertz alone. During those five weeks, that set has produced a 111.2 quarterback rating for Wentz and Foles on 84 plays.
Add in a healthy Darren Sproles, one of league’s premier pass-catching tailbacks who returned to the lineup in December, and Ertz’s effectiveness and threat has only amplified in recent weeks.
But more than a year ago, retired Cowboys tight end Jason Witten could already see Ertz’s potential as the game’s next truly great tight end.
In the final game of his career, coincidentally a game against the Eagles in Dallas, the future Hall of Famer did something he’d never done — he traded jerseys with Ertz after the final whistle, a modern-day sign of respect and reverence in pro sports.
Not knowing that one year later, Ertz would overtake Witten as the single-season receptions leader for tight ends with 116 — six more than the former Cowboy's record set in 2012 — the veteran recognizes the type of threat the Saints will have to stop Sunday. One that the stat sheet can’t always explain.
“I don’t think there’s a guy in the National Football League at the tight end position that runs routes better than him,” Witten said this season. “I don’t think Philly fans and NFL fans truly appreciate what he’s doing right now. Not just the stats, but every big play that this offense has needed has been to him.”