Eagles' Zach Ertz, Patriots' Rob Gronkowski headline premier tight-end duel in Super Bowl

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Eagles tight end Zach Ertz (right) won’t be the best tight end on the field during the Super Bowl. That honor goes to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Zach Ertz did not need to look up the statistics. He can tell you exactly how many yards New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski accumulated in 2011.

“I think it’s at 1,327,” Ertz said correctly, referencing Gronkowski’s record for tight-end yardage in a single season. “He set pretty much every tight-end record out there.”

It’s rare for the Eagles to enter a game without the best tight end on the field. That’s an advantage the Eagles have realized with Ertz’s continued development, including his first Pro Bowl bid this season. (The game was Sunday; Ertz did not play because the Eagles have the Super Bowl to worry about.)

The Super Bowl will be one of those games when Ertz plays second fiddle in the tight-end spotlight because of Gronkowski, who is considered the NFL’s premier tight end – when he plays. Gronkowski missed the Patriots’ practices last week after suffering a concussion in the AFC championship game, although he was back on the field Saturday and there’s optimism he will play.

Ertz’s 824 receiving yards this season finished third among NFL tight ends behind Gronkowski (1,084) and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (1,038). He finished ahead of Gronkowski in receptions (Ertz had 74, Gronkowski had 69) and they each scored eight touchdowns.

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Both offenses will need to rely on their tight ends in the Super Bowl. And both defenses have safeties used to shutting down opposing tight ends. Malcolm Jenkins fills that role for the Eagles and former Eagle Patrick Chung has become tight ends’ nemesis on New England.

Jenkins has never played against Gronkowski in three career games against New England, but he’s preparing for the challenge the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder presents.

“I’ll be looking forward to the matchup,” Jenkins said. “He’s the top tight end in the league for a reason.”

If Jenkins needed a scouting report, he would only need to look to Ertz. The Eagles tight end studied management science and engineering at Stanford and has been lauded for his intelligence. He’s aware of tight ends throughout the league, able to rattle of their accomplishments as if he was prepping for an exam in Palo Alto. So when he knew Gronkowski’s record-setting statistics, it was not by chance.

“The guy is a physical specimen, he’s a freak,” Ertz said. “He’s able to use his body. He obviously has a very good quarterback throwing him the ball, but he’d still be producing those numbers with or without Tom Brady. I’ve definitely learned a lot from him. He’s a beast after the catch. He’s able to use his body whenever he wants to get open. Even when he’s not open, he’s open with the frame that he has and the ball skills that he has. He’s someone who’s been the preeminent tight end in this league for a long time, and he’s an unbelievable player.”

Ertz, who is 6-5 and 250, can earn similar praise – especially for his route-running and the way he uses leverage against defenders. Ertz credited his film study and coaching for that skill. He often watches other tight ends, but it’s not Gronkowski that Ertz tries to emulate; it’s Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

“You’d see some similarities if you studied our game,” Ertz said.

Ertz messaged Witten last week to congratulate him on another Pro Bowl and has often shared with Witten how much he admires him. Witten said before Week 17 that he “loves how [Ertz] plays the game,” called Ertz an “exceptional player” and “one of the best in game,” and added a large part the Eagles’ offense success this season was due to “his ability with good route-running to finding the soft spots in zones.”

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Rob Gronkowski.

Before the NFC championship game, Ertz said he wanted to be the player the Eagles relied upon on third downs. He showed why in the game, including four third-down catches that resulted in first downs. That was a big reason why the Eagles were able to go 10 of 14 against the NFL’s best third-down defense in at least two decades. And two of Ertz’s catches came on third-and-longs – one with 10 yards to go and another with 8 yards to go, the type of clutch catches that extend drives and can change games.

Ertz gave credit to the offensive line’s blocking, especially by left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai against Minnesota Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen, because Ertz was able to run routes instead of helping with pass protection.

“The more guys you can get in the route, the better success rate it can be,” Ertz said. “When the situation calls for it, I want to be the guy, I want to make the play.”

The Patriots might be confident because of how Chung has played – opposing tight ends averaged only 45 yards per game against the Patriots’ defense this season – but the Vikings likely had similar confidence last week with All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. Ertz caught all eight of his targets for 93 yards, including a 36-yard gain. And with Alshon Jeffery the Eagles’ top target on the outside, Torrey Smith requiring defenses’ attention deep, and Nelson Agholor’s versatility creating potential mismatches, Ertz can be dangerous in the middle of the field.

“He’s hard to cover,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said of Ertz. “He’s hard to cover one-on-one. He’s hard to cover in zone because he’s got such a good feel. I think that’s the problem that our offense presents. When you can attack from the inside like Ertz can, but then we have guys on the outside making plays, they feed off one another.”

The same has been said for Gronkowski ever since he set NFL records. It’s why the matchup of the tight ends against both defenses is one of the keys to the Super Bowl.