The Minnesota Vikings had a front row seat for the Zach Ertz Show in the NFC Championship game.
In their 38-7 victory over the Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles’ tight end was the team’s top weapon, catching eight passes on eight targets for 93 yards.
En route to the Super Bowl, Philly’s leading receiver in 2017 was used all over the field, lining up 15 times on the quarterback’s right, 11 on the left, 17 times as a slot receiver and five times as an outside receiver. Ertz was even the right tackle on one play with an unbalanced line.
The NFC title game was far from the first time Ertz showed his versatility. During the regular season he lined up as a tight end 562 times, slot receiver 259 times and outside receiver on 106 plays (all stats per Pro Football Focus).
It’s hard to say how much of Philadelphia’s playbook John DeFilippo will bring with him, but Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph has not been shy about his excitement over the past usage of tight ends by DeFilippo teams in the past.
“I’ve seen what he’s done in the past, what he was able to do in 2015 with Gary Barnidge, and then obviously last year [Zach] Ertz had an unbelievable year in this system,” Rudolph said in June. “It’s not just us. Obviously, he’s had great success with tight ends.”
Vikings 2017 offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wasn’t afraid to move Rudolph to different spots, but didn’t do it with Rudolph at the same frequency that Doug Pederson did with Ertz. Last season Rudolph took 702 snaps at tight end, 285 in the slot and 47 as an outside receiver. He also was lined up in the backfield 12 times and 11 times as right tackle on the unbalanced line.
Outside receiver might not seem like the obvious place to use Rudolph, especially since the Vikings have two of the best outside receivers in the NFL in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen (though both double as slot receivers). But there is a schematic effect to lining the tight end up as an outside receiver.
“Not necessarily him gets a bad matchup all the time, maybe somebody else does,” head coach Mike Zimmer explained Sunday. “If you’re in zone then the corner stays outside then the wide receiver is on a linebacker, he might get a bad matchup. Or let’s say the linebacker goes out to cover the tight end, then they know it’s man coverage. So it just predetermines a lot of things, what you may end up getting.”
Knowing what type of coverage he’s likely to face gives Rudolph a sense of what he will have to do to get open.
“I know it’s zone coverage so I know he has an area that he’s responsible for versus having me in man coverage,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph had a down year by fantasy football standards in 2017, but not by efficiency. He ranked as Pro Football Focus’s fifth best receiving tight end, one spot behind Ertz, and Vikings quarterbacks registered a 106.6 rating when throwing in his direction — a number that would have been even higher if not for an ill-advised pass by Case Keenum in Washington.
Keenum completed 70.1 percent of his passes to his Pro Bowl tight end, many of which came in key situations, either third down or the red zone.
When throwing to Rudolph inside the 20, Keenum went 12-for-14 with five touchdowns, zero interceptions and on either third or fourth down, he was targeted 20 times and made 14 catches for 11 first downs.
Rudolph’s adaptability allowed Shurmur to put him all over the field. And if he’s asked to play outside receiver more often this year, he will be ready.
“The biggest difference, if you think about it as a tight end, most of the time you are catching the ball running away from the quarterback,” Rudolph said. “If you’re inside, you are running an out, you are running a corner, you’re running an in-cut and crossing the quarterback and running away. When you’re on the outside, most of the routes you are running, you are running back to the quarterback. It’s a simple thing in terms of catching the ball running towards it versus running away from it.”
Naturally the Vikings try to use Rudolph’s size against smaller defenders. In OTAs, Kirk Cousins’ quarterback coach Kevin Stefanski insisted he make throws in Rudolph’s direction despite him appearing not to be open in the red zone.
“Linebackers, safeties, I have a size advantage on all of them,” Rudolph said. “That is one of the things that gives you an advantage when you’re out wide. We may be standing next to each other, but the quarterback can throw in a place where only I can get it.”
It would be no surprise if DeFilippo asked Rudolph to move around even more to take full advantage of pre-snap tells and the mismatch he creates.