Zach Ertz set for bigger role in Eagles' offense


Zach Ertz set for bigger role in Eagles' offense

If the Eagles are going to make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson, they need Zach Ertz to live up to expectations. 

Drafted higher (35th overall) than any Eagles tight end since Keith Jackson in 1988, Ertz -- as a rookie -- caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns last season. In the first half of the season, Ertz had 14 receptions for 201 yards. Second half: 22 for 268. 

The one glaring difference? Touchdowns. All four of his scores came after Week 8.

“I think you kind of saw [what I can do] in the second half of the season,” Ertz said after the Eagles OTA on Monday. “I was used all over the field, so hopefully it’s more of that.”

Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme requires players at the skill positions to be versatile. The Stanford product said he put a “huge emphasis” on his run blocking in the offseason to balance his pass catching ability that he admitted comes more naturally.

Ertz played 40.8 percent of the team’s snaps on offense last year, while starter Brent Celek played 76.5 percent.

Versatility is a necessity for the offense to play at its hallmark fast pace. In 2013, the Eagles went no-huddle 66.5 percent of the time, tops in the NFL, and had the shortest average time of possession per drive at 2:04.

“Brent and myself, I think we can line up all over the field,” Ertz said. “Obviously if you look at the two of us, he’s more of a traditional in-line tight end, but in this offense you have to be able to do both. I think that’s kind of what helps us with the speed of this offense.

“If you want to play fast, you can’t be subbing guys in and out. With the tight ends that we have, we’re able to do that whether it’s in-line or out wide as a receiver.”

Ertz won’t be alone in trying to make up for the production lost by DeSean's departure to D.C.

Jeremy Maclin, who is coming off of a torn ACL, and rookie receiver Jordan Matthews are entering their first full years in Kelly’s system, and Riley Cooper is looking to build on a career year in which he caught 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns.

At running back, the Eagles added more versatility in the offseason by trading for Darren Sproles and signing him to a three-year, $10.5 million contract.

Sproles, who caught 71 balls out of the backfield with the New Orleans Saints last year, will team up with LeSean McCoy, who had 52 catches for 539 yards on top of his career-high 1,607 yards on the ground.

“We’ve added a lot of new faces on offense, but at the end of the day a lot of the receivers and tight ends are interchangeable,” Ertz said. “Whether it is -- receivers, tight ends or running backs, you have to be able to play all over the field. That’s a big thing for me and everybody else.”

Eagles bring back Taylor Hart after stint with Chip Kelly

Eagles bring back Taylor Hart after stint with Chip Kelly

The Eagles have brought back a familiar face to take Ron Brooks' roster spot.

On Monday, the team claimed defensive tackle Taylor Hart off waivers from San Francisco. Hart was just waived on Saturday by the 49ers, who claimed him after the Eagles waived him at final cuts.

So, Hart is coming back to Philly after a stint with Chip Kelly in San Francisco.

Hart, 25, played in one game for the 49ers this year. The Eagles are light at defensive tackle thanks to Bennie Logan's groin injury. While head coach Doug Pederson on Monday said Logan was getting better, the Eagles still brought in more depth by claiming Hart.

While still with the Eagles, Kelly had a hand in drafting Hart, an Oregon product, in the fifth round of 2014.

Hart worked hard this offseason to learn how to play in Jim Schwartz's aggressive 4-3 defense, which is very unlike the ones he had played in during college and in the NFL.

Brooks has been placed on IR after rupturing a quad tendon during Sunday's game against the Vikings. He'll have surgery this week.

In addition to adding Hart to the active roster, the Eagles also added cornerback Aaron Grymes to their practice squad.

Grymes, 25, was having an impressive training camp and preseason with the Eagles before injuring his right shoulder. He was waived shortly after that.

After coming out of the University of Idaho in 2013, Grymes didn't make an NFL team so he went to Canada. He ended up as a starter and All-Star on the Edmonton Eskimos and won a Grey Cup in 2015.

To make room for Grymes, the Eagles cut OL Matt Rotheram from the practice squad.

Vikings learn why Eagles are among NFL's best in red zone

Vikings learn why Eagles are among NFL's best in red zone

Three times they drove inside the 20, three times they were denied.

The Vikings opened Sunday's game against the Eagles at the Linc by driving to the 6-yard line and the 17-yard line in the first quarter and then added another drive to the 6-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Each time, the Eagles' defense stopped them.

The Vikings got the ball at the 2-yard line 5½ minutes into the game after Andrew Sendejo's interception and 16-yard return. But two plays later, Rodney McLeod picked off Sam Bradford in the end zone, ending that threat.

On the Vikings' next drive, after Carson Wentz's fumble and Anthony Barr's recovery, the Vikings had a 1st-and-10 on the Eagles' 17. But on the very next play, Connor Barwin stripped Bradford and Malcolm Jenkins recovered.

Then early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had a 1st-and-Goal on the Eagles' 15, but the Eagles stopped the Vikings on downs, with Jordan Hicks stuffing fullback Zach Line on 3rd-and-1 from the 6 and Beau Allen stuffing Matt Asiata on 4th-and-1.

Three red-zone drives. Zero points.

"It's huge, man," McLeod said. "The past few weeks we've been giving up touchdowns, (which is) uncharacteristic of us. So we just locked in and we just played sound defense. And fundamentals and technique showed up huge. 

"The defensive line did a great job and guys in the back end covered up and we were able to make a lot of plays because of that."

Sunday marked the first time in 12 years the Eagles have held an opponent scoreless on three separate red-zone drives.

On Sept. 12, 2004 — opening day of the Super Bowl season — the Eagles beat the Giants 31-17 at the Linc, and the Giants had three late drives inside the 20 that resulted in no points:

• On a 3rd-and-Goal from the Eagles' 1-yard line late in the third quarter, quarterback Kurt Warner fumbled on an aborted play and Jevon Kearse recovered at the 4-yard-line;

• On a 4th-and-Goal from the Eagles' 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Warner threw incomplete to Ike Hillliard with Ike Reese in coverage;

• And at the end of the game, relief quarterback Eli Manning, playing in his first NFL game, was sacked by Jerome McDougle — the first of his three career sacks — at the Eagles' 19-yard line.

The Vikings did score in the red zone Sunday at the end of the game, but the bottom line is the Eagles allowed only seven of a possible 28 red-zone points in a game they won by 11.

"It's huge, it is huge," head coach Doug Pederson said. "Our defense — you look at Minnesota, interception, a fumble on downs, they had a touchdown late in the game. Our defense playing as well as they did down there and stopping them — again, it does start up front, and the pressure on the quarterback.

"I'll tell you what, it was fun to watch our defense (against the Vikings). That's the defense that we expect every week going forward."

The Eagles have faced 20 red-zone drives this year and allowed nine touchdowns and four field goals.

That's 3.75 points per possession, which is second-best in the NFL behind only the Seahawks (3.69 points per possession).

They're No. 1 in red-zone scoring efficiency, allowing those 13 scores on 20 drives (65 percent), and they're No. 5 in TDs allowed with nine on 20 drives (45 percent).

"First thing is stopping the run and we did a good job of that," Malcolm Jenkins said. "And then once you stop the run, you pack the middle of the field and you've got to make them throw outside and if they make a mistake you've got to come up with a turnover.

"There was the one good pressure we stopped them running it, the one I batted the ball up in the air and Rodney comes up with the pick, and the other one we get a fumble recovery. Those are all big. Those plays, you can't scheme them up, you've just got to go down there and make something happen."

The Eagles are allowing 2.4 yards per pass play in the red zone, which is sixth-best in the league this year, and they're allowing 1.0 yards per rushing play, which is — by far — best in the NFL.

Overall, they're allowing 1.81 yards per play inside the 20, second-best in the league behind the Panthers (1.77). The league average is 3.0.

There's no magic to it.

"It's just bowing up," Hicks said. "It's toughness down there. We knew they like to run the ball and we shut them down. Make them one-dimensional and force them to pass. When they did run it, we stopped them.

"Just shows the character of this defense and the toughness and mindset of this defense as well."