Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
The Steelers were determined to reduce the impact of the Eagle’s Pro Bowl tight end, but it came at a cost.
We admit, it’s nerdy. And we embrace it.
Vertex– a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Now do you see where we’re coming from?
The topic at hand is the Steelers desire to minimize Eagles Pro Bowl tight and Zach Ertz. With the Eagles’ biggest wide receiver threats unable to play in Week 5 due to injury, Ertz was a major point of focus coming in to the matchup against the Eagles.
So what happened? Did the Steelers contain the player they sought to take away? What were the repercussions of what the Steelers were attempting to do?
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
Entering Week 5 of the 2020 season, Eagles’ tight end Zach Ertz had 20 receptions on 35 targets for 145 yards, one touchdown, and one two-point conversion. Coming off of Pro Bowl seasons the last three years, Ertz was the biggest weapon remaining on the field for the Eagles. In response, the Steelers defense focused on Ertz and held him to one reception for 6 yards on six targets.
Although the Steelers are catching flack for their pass defense which surrendered 276 passing yards on 21 completions (258 yards on 20 completions by Carson Wentz and 18 yards on one completion by Jalen Hurts), the fact the Steelers took away one of Philadelphia‘s biggest weapons seems to have been overlooked by many in Steelers’ Nation. Ertz’s only reception came in the second quarter on a 3rd & 4 at the Steelers 7 yard line which set up Miles Sanders’ second touchdown of the day. Also, Steven Nelson’s first interception came on a target to Ertz when he and quarterback Carson Wentz were not on the same page reading the Steelers’ defense.
The last time Ertz was held to only one reception was in Week 7 of the 2016 season against the Minnesota Vikings. The last time Ertz was held to 6 yards or fewer was during the 2014 season when he was playing less than 30% of the team’s offensive snaps. On Sunday, Ertz was on the field for the Eagles for 56 over the Eagles’ 59 offensive plays which equates to 95%.
Ertz was coming off of a game in which he was held to single-digit receiving yards for the first time since Week 10 of 2017. Thanks to the Steelers, Etrz now has back-to-back single digits games for the first time in his NFL career.
But it appears the Eagles may have used the Steelers’ focus on Ertz to their advantage. Instead, wide receiver Travis Fulgham was targeted 13 times where he had 10 receptions for 152 yards and a touchdown. Before Sunday, Fulgham’s only career targets came the previous week even though he is in his second season in the NFL. Coming into Week 5, Fulgham only had two career receptions for 57 yards and one touchdown, all coming to against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 4.
The Film Line:
The Steelers weren’t overly concerned with Travis Fulgham at the start of the game, it would take a while for them to adjust as he made play after play. A big part of their difficulty in dealing with Fulgham was their game plan to shut down Zach Ertz, and the Eagles offense using that against them.
2nd quarter, 11:03. Travis Fulgham is the receiver to the top of the screen, Zach Ertz is third from the top.
You may look at this and think that Fulgham’s reception here had nothing to do with Zach Ertz, but it had a lot to do with him, this play was set up by the pre-snap adjustments of both the Eagles and Steelers.
The play starts with Devin Bush lined up across from Zach Ertz, Mike Hilton covering the middle receiver, Nelson on the outside and Edmunds supporting them at safety. The Steelers don’t want Bush on Ertz, so Hilton switches onto Ertz and Edmunds takes over covering the middle receiver. There is no deep help on this play, and you can see that Nelson is dropping back and reading the quarterback at the snap. Nelson becomes the deep defender on this play, and Fulgham is open for a 13-yard gain. You can also see Ertz communicating with the middle receiver and that receiver communicating to Fulgham. While the play itself might not show it, the Steelers respect for Ertz created the opportunity before the ball was snapped.
It showed up after the snap as well.
2nd quarter, 9:43. Zach Ertz is the receiver third from the top of the screen, Travis Fulgham is outside Ertz, the middle receiver.
When Carson Wentz evades the rush and extends the play, Mike Hilton has fallen down, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Sutton are trying to get to Ertz before Wentz can get him the ball, and Wentz takes the easier pass to Fulgham. When help was needed, it was Ertz the Steelers were rallying to first for most of the game, and it left Fulgham open more than once.
Other times the Eagles offensive play design used Ertz to get Fulgham open.
4th quarter, 11:30. Zach Ertz is to the top of the screen, on the line of scrimmage in the bunch formation, Travis Fulgham is outside of Ertz.
Zach Ertz clears out Terrell Edmunds, and Edmunds stays with Ertz, which was good, because that’s where Carson Wentz was looking first. You can see Minkah Fitzpatrick following Ertz underneath as he reads Wentz’s eyes. That left a nice hole in the defense where Fulgham danced until Wentz finally saw him. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds were on Ertz, Nelson took a few steps toward the quick out and no one was covering Fulgham, despite him being the leading receiver by a large margin on the day.
If the Steelers’ game plan going in to Week 5 was to take Zach Ertz out of the game, then mission accomplished. Unfortunately, the Steelers struggled to adjust as the Eagles explored other options within their offense. For those who are concerned with the Steelers’ defense giving up so much to a relatively unknown wide receiver, it ultimately comes down to their defensive game plan and where they are willing to give in order to fortify in other places. The chances of the Steelers employing the same defensive game plan in the coming weeks is highly doubtful. Most importantly, moving forward the Steelers need to have less “give” in other places on defense while still focusing of shutting down their opponents strengths.