Zach Ertz wanted the ball. It was third and 7, and the Eagles were at Atlanta’s 45-yard line in the fourth quarter while holding a two-point lead last Saturday, and they needed to convert a first down to keep a scoring drive alive.
Third downs were Kryptonite for the Eagles during the final two weeks of the season, but Ertz, who has been a go-to pass catcher all season, yearned to be the Nick Foles’ target. Foles found Ertz for an 11-yard gain, and the Eagles ended up kicking a crucial field goal later in the drive. It was the type of play that the Eagles need their 27-year-old Pro Bowl tight end to make on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings if they hope to make the Super Bowl.
“Red zone, third down, I want to be the guy who gets the number called,” Ertz said. “I put a lot of pride into what I do as a receiver in those situations – using my body when we need to make a play.”
The Eagles like to spread the ball around, which is why they had neither a 1,000-yard receiver or a 1,000-yard rusher this season. Ertz said if the ball is directed at Alshon Jeffery or Nelson Agholor or another one of the Eagles’ offensive weapons, he’s fine with that, too.
“No one’s able to focus on one guy,” he said.
But Ertz doesn’t want to shrink from the moment. He oozed with potential since he arrived in Philadelphia as a second-round pick in 2013. He caught a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter of his first playoff game in January 2014 – from Foles, of all quarterbacks – that would hold a bigger place in Eagles history if they didn’t lose the game in the final seconds.
Much has happened in the four seasons since. Ertz has played with five different starting quarterbacks during his five-year career, including four different opening-day starters. His talent has earned praise and a lucrative contract, but annually there’s been a desire for more from Ertz — whether it was more touchdowns, more yards after contact, more September production — to the point that the criticism affected Ertz last season before maturity and a spiritual awakening helped propel his growth.
He finally reached the Pro Bowl this season with 74 catches for 824 yards and a career-high eight touchdowns in 14 games. It was his third consecutive season with more than 70 catches and 800 yards, production that’s made Ertz an established player in the league. He had the NFL’s seventh highest-selling jersey last week, according to Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Now, he’s tasked with being a key part of the Eagles’ Super Bowl push. He played 88 percent of the snaps last week while catching only three passes for 32 yards.
It only becomes more difficult on Sunday because the Vikings have one of the NFL’s best defenses against tight ends with safety Harrison Smith presenting a major challenge. Tight ends averaged around four catches for 40 yards against the Vikings during the regular season, and only three tight ends scored. No tight end had more than seven catches or 76 yards.
“This week is going to be a huge test for us,” Ertz said of the Vikings’ top-ranked defense. “This front seven is dynamic. They are really fast up front. Their linebackers are two of the best in the league. I think as a team, it’s going to be staying out of those third-and-long situations, is going to be huge for us. We can’t have those situations but we’ve got a really good team offensively and we’re excited about the opportunity.”
The Eagles played well enough on third downs last week (6 of 13), but they weren’t good enough in the red zone (1 of 3). They need seven points and not three points when near the end zone, and Ertz will be a big part of that effort. All eight of his touchdowns this season have come in the red zone, ranking third in the NFL behind only Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham and Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Ertz must be a big part of the Eagles scoring touchdowns instead of field goals.
“Obviously, we need to be better in the red zone,” Ertz said. “We need to score touchdowns down there.”
It would also help if the Eagles can get “chunk plays,” as offensive coordinator Frank Reich called them, instead of relying on long drives like they did against the Falcons. Those are easier said than done. The Eagles have nine passing plays of 40 or more yards this season. Agholor leads the team with three, and Ertz and Torrey Smith both have two. They have 18 passing plays of at least 30 yards and 46 passing plays of at least 20 yards.
“You’d love to have those X plays, those 40-yard completion plays each and every drive, but sometimes, especially this point of the year, it’s not really realistic,” Ertz said. “You’re going to have to grind it out on some drives. I think with the personnel we have, the running game we have, that is sustainable. Obviously this week is going to be a huge test for us.”
If that’s the case, third downs will be key. Agholor and Jeffery have been more productive than Ertz on third downs this season, but Ertz remains a go-to targets. He wants it, and after five years in Philadelphia, he knows what the response will be if they do enough to win the NFC championship on their home field.
“Last week, that environment was the best environment I’ve ever been in,” Ertz said. “…I’ve never heard the stadium louder. It was a blast to be a part of. That’s why I think everyone in this building is honored to play football in this city. It’s a lot of fun and something that we never take for granted.”