Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Eagles Bring NFL's Best Rushing Attack to Wild Card Showdown

Scouting Report: After emphasizing the pass early in the season, the Eagles have embraced the strengths of Jalen Hurts, their O-Line and a deep group of running backs…Plus, other key players and strengths and weaknesses for the Bucs' Wild Card opponent

Scouting Report

By moving up to the second seed in the NFC playoff standings in Week 18, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured a first-round matchup with the conference's lowest-seeded team, the Philadelphia Eagles. The optimist would surely point out that the Eagles are just one game over .500 at 9-8, have a strength-of-victory number (.350) that is by far the lowest of all 14 NFL playoff teams and most recently lost to Dallas, 51-26. The Buccaneers have also beaten Philadelphia already this season, a 28-22 decision on a Thursday night in Week Six.

However, that carefully selected list of facts doesn't come close to painting the full Eagles picture, and Tom Brady, for one, isn't buying it.

"We're going to have to play our best game of the year," said Brady while the Bucs were still celebrating the combination of their win and the Rams' loss that gave them the two seed. "I mean this is our toughest opponent all year. You know, we're playing a team that's very talented and made it to this point for a reason. We have to do everything we have to do to get the win. This is a football team that has been playing really well, good on offense, they have a very good defense, good front, very healthy. it's going to be a very tough game."

Indeed, looked at from another angle, this is an Eagles team that will be bringing the NFL's best rushing attack and the 10th-ranked defense to Raymond James Stadium. The Eagles won six of their last eight games with that final loss to Dallas coming in a game in which Philly started mostly reserves with its playoff fate already decided. Prior to that, the Eagles had held five straight opponents to 18 points or fewer. Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox are a load in the middle of Philadelphia's defensive front and a primary weakness of recent Eagles teams – the offensive line, largely due to injuries – has turned into a massive strength.

And then, of course, there is the Jalen Hurts issue. The Buccaneers got a little taste of the problems Hurts could cause in that Week Six matchup, though they handled him pretty well until late in the third quarter. Hurts still finished with 44 rushing yards and two touchdown runs. Hurts finished the regular season as the Eagles' leading rusher, racking up 784 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he's also backed up by a four-tailback rotation of Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. Sanders not only gained 754 yards but also averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

This Eagles teams is also a team very different from the one the Bucs encountered in mid-October. Actually, that very game serves as something of a microcosm of the team's midseason transformation under first-year Head Coach Nick Sirianni. The Eagles handed the ball off to a running back exactly one time in the first half of that Thursday night contest, with Sanders gaining one yard. Sanders got eight carries for 55 yards in the second half and the Eagles finished with exactly 100 ground yards on the night.

Similarly, the Eagles went from one of the NFL's most pass-heavy teams during a 2-5 start to one that emphasized the run – including Hurts' role in the ground game – through a 7-3 finish. According to The Athletic's Bo Wulf, the Eagles had an early-down pass rate of 59.3% in neutral situations through Week Seven, which was the eighth highest in the league. Since, that rate is 40.8%, the third lowest in the NFL.

The Eagles' 10th-ranked defense is also quite balanced ranking ninth against the run and 11th against the pass. Despite its talented front, which also includes ends Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett, the Eagles have had trouble getting the quarterback on the ground (31st in sack rate) but still generated a good amount of pressure (see below) an were 10th in yards allowed per pass play because they have been very good at preventing big plays. Veteran cornerback Darius Slay leads a much-improved secondary and finished the regular season with a team-high three interceptions.

The Buccaneers have faced the Eagles in the playoffs more times than any other opponent, and the two teams are currently even in that series, 2-2. However, this is the first time they've squared off in the postseason in almost 20 years, since the Buccaneers shut down the Vet in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. This time, it's the Eagles who will try to become road warriors and spoil the home team's dreams of making it to the Super Bowl. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will face when they begin their 2021 postseason journey on Sunday against the Eagles:

EAGLES DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

When the Buccaneers faced the Eagles in Week Six we chose to highlight as difference-makers the quartet of rookie wideout DeVonta Smith, Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce, interior-line menace Javon Hargrave and savvy veteran cornerback Darius Slay. While we are going to repeat one of those choices this week the Eagles have plenty of other standouts from which to choose, including safeties Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod and front-line standouts Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett. Running back Miles Sanders has battled through some injuries to head up a deep running back corps and tight end Dallas Goedert stepped into the number-one role and produced 830 yards and four touchdowns. In addition to those Eagles, here are four who could make a big difference in the outcome of Sunday's Wild Card game:

1. QB Jalen Hurts. Since the opposing team's quarterback is always going to be a primary difference-maker in the game, one way or another, it takes a special sort of challenge before we make a point of including him in this section. Hurts definitely presents one of those. Hurts is a very talented runner but this is not the same task as trying to contain an effective scrambler like, say, Sam Darnold. Hurts ran more designed running plays than any other quarterback in the league this year, and did the most with them. He led NFL passers with 337 yards and eight touchdowns on designed runs and was even first in rushing yards over expected (+146), according to Next Gen Stats. Of course, Hurts does also move around the pocket quite a bit, too, as he averaged 7.1 yards of traveling per pass attempt this season, the second most scramble yards per dropback in the NFL. As a passer, the second-year man has completed 61.3% of his passes and has a 16-19 TD-INT ratio and an 87.2 passer rating.

2. DT Javon Hargrave. Cox has long been at the center of what is annually a strong Eagles defensive front, but Hargrave is probably the most disruptive force in that group at this point. In fact, he was one of the most dominant inside pass rushers in the NFL in 2021, leading the league with 58 pressures on snaps aligned as an interior defensive lineman. His 15.0% pressure rate ranked seventh in the league this season, making him the only interior lineman in the top 10. And Philadelphia's run defense is tougher with him on the field, as well; opposing running backs average 1.7 yards before contact when Hargrave is off the field and 1.2 when he is on it. Overall, Hargrave tied for the Eagles' lead with 7.5 sacks in 2021 while also posting 63 tackles, nine tackles for loss, a team-high 18 QB hits, one pass defensed and one forced fumble.

3. T Jordan Mailata. Like the Buccaneers with Tristan Wirfs, the Eagles have one of the league's best right tackles in Lane Johnson, who has played exceptionally well since taking three weeks away from the team in October to deal with personal matters. But while Johnson is a former first-round pick (fourth overall) who already has three Pro Bowls to his name, Mailata's emergence as a powerful force at the other end of the line is probably a greater find for the Eagles. A former Australian rugby superstar known for trampling entire opposing teams with the ball in his hand, Mailata was drafted by the Eagles in the seventh round in 2018 even though he had never played a down of American football. The 6-8, 365-pound Mailata didn't get a chance to play until 2020 but he showed enough promise to get a big four-year contract before this season and has rewarded the Eagles with an outstanding season. He and rookie Landon Dickerson give the left side of the Eagles' line an abundance of power, but as Mailata's wildly entertaining rugby highlights on YouTube make clear, he can move very, very well for such a big man.

4. DE Josh Sweat. As noted above, Javon Hargrave tied for the Eagles' lead in sacks this year with 7.5, and the man joining him at the top was Sweat. A former fourth-round pick in 2018, Sweat emerged as a six-sack performer last year as a rotational player and part-time starter, and this year he has produced even more as a full-year starter. Along with his 7.5 sacks he has 45 tackles, 13 quarterback hits, four passes defensed and one forced fumble. He most commonly rushes from wide of the right tackle and so will be one of the main challenges for Wirfs this Sunday. According to Next Gen Stats, Sweat has an excellent average get-off time after the snap of 0.80 seconds. He has also been credited with 40 stops, which are tackles that prevent a play from being deemed a success (four-plus yards on first down, etc.). Sweat heads into the playoffs on a hot streak, having recorded 4.0 sacks and three passes defensed over his final four games (he did not play in Week 18 against Dallas).

STRENGTHS

As noted above, the Eagles have the NFL's most productive ground game, averaging 159.7 yards per outing, and they also rank fourth in yards per carry at 4.94. Hurts and the aforementioned four-headed backfield of Sanders, Howard, Gainwell and Scott all have at least 291 rushing yards and all averaged at least 4.3 yards per tote. The Eagles' defense allowed just 4.00 yards per carry during the regular season, the sixth-best mark in the league, and it also held opposing pass-catchers to a low 9.7 yards per grab. Here are some more specific ways in which the Eagles have performed well during the first five weeks of the 2021 season:

·    According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Eagles' defense was the only one in the NFL in 2021 to feature four different players with at least 40 quarterback pressures: Javon Hargrave (58), Derek Barnett (46), Fletcher Cox (42) and Josh Sweat (41). That foursome is the key to what the Eagles do on offense because Philadelphia had the third-lowest blitz rate in the league (20% of dropbacks).

·    The Eagles don't have the NFL's most productive receiving corps beyond rookie DeVonta Smith and emerging tight end Dallas Goedert, but the Bucs' defense better be ready to run when any of Philly's pass-catchers get their hands on the ball. According to NGS, Philadelphia's wide receivers collectively were the fastest group in the NFL after catching passes, averaging a top speed of 14.84 miles per hour. Both Quez Watkins and Jalen Reagor hit max speeds of over 21 MPH at times this season.

·    Philadelphia's defense was very good at preventing big pass plays, as noted above. The Eagles allowed just 38 completions of 20 or more yards during the regular season, or a little over two per game, and that tied New England for the second-fewest in the NFL. Only Buffalo allowed fewer, with 31.

·    As one might expect from the robust per-carry averages of Hurts and his backfield mates, the Philadelphia offense generates a lot of long runs. In fact, the Eagles' 77 carries of 10 or more yards (about four and a half per game), was second in the league this season behind Cleveland's 81. The Eagles also gained at least four yards on 53.3% of their runs, the highest rate in the NFL.

WEAKNESSES

Philly's defense has had some struggles in situational football, ranking 29th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (66.7%) and tied for 23rd in third-down conversions allowed (42.9%). The Eagles' passing attack is averaging just over 200 yards per game and ranks 25th in the NFL, and despite the team's powerful rushing attack it has a negative average time of possession. The Eagles also rank in the bottom seven with their averages on both punt returns (7.2) and kickoff returns 18.5). In addition:

·    The Buccaneers hope to have Leonard Fournette back in action for the Wild Card round but still may want to consider throwing the ball frequently on first down, as that has been an effective approach against the Eagles' defense. Philadelphia has faced 234 pass plays on first down this season and 139 of them have resulted in at least four yards (thus making them "successful plays). That passing success rate of 59.4% allowed is the worst for any NFL defense this season.

·    Jalen Hurts and the Eagles' passing attack hasn't had much success when airing it out this season. Philadelphia has thrown 65 passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield in the air and completed just 21 of them. That completion percentage of 32.3% isn't that much worse than the league average of 36.2%; the problem is that those passes have produced five interceptions and just three touchdowns. It adds up to a team passer rating on deep passes of 58.8, third worst in the NFL. The league average is 90.2.

·    As noted earlier, the Eagles blitz less often than 29 of the NFL's other 31 teams, and that's probably a good thing because they haven't been very effective when they have brought extra pass rushers. Philadelphia's blitzes have produced just five sacks all season, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL, and they have allowed opposing passers a rating of 105.1 on those snaps, which ranks 26th in the league.

·    Philadelphia is dead even in turnover ratio, but that says more about the Eagles' ball security on offense than it's ability to take the ball away on defense. The Eagles' 16 takeaways are tied for the fifth fewest in the NFL, which has limited their chances to get points off turnovers. Philadelphia has actually been pretty decent in converting their takeaways into touchdowns, with a TD percentage after turnovers of 43.8%. The league average is 36.0%. But that still has only resulted in 61 points off turnovers for the Eagles.

NEW FACES IN 2021

Fifth-round rookie Kenneth Gainwell has become a productive part of a deep running back group and third-round pick Milton Williams has played 41% of the defensive snaps as part of the interior-line rotation on defense. The two biggest contributors of the Eagles' 2021 draft, however, are noted below. Safety Anthony Harris, the former Vikings standout, started every game except the last one and helped solidify a previously shaky secondary. A trade with the Jaguars late in the season gave the Eagles a reliable backup quarterback in Gardner Minshew, who has started two games.

1. OL Landon Dickerson. A high second-round pick who played center at Alabama, Dickerson wasn't in the opening-day lineup but quickly got the call after an early-season injury to right guard Brandon Brooks. He only made one start there, however, because left guard Isaac Seumalo went down the next week and Dickerson moved over to that side. The rookie has had an impressive debut season and has helped the Eagles field one of the league's most effective O-Lines.

2. WR DeVonta Smith. Another member of the extremely impressive group of rookie wideouts, Smith was the 10th player selected overall and the third receiver off the board in April. The Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase set a franchise receiving record and nearly broke the NFL's rookie yardage record and the Dolphins' Jaylen Waddle broke the league's rookie reception record, but the Eagles are surely quite happy with their selection as well. Smith led the team receptions (64), receiving yards (916) and touchdown receptions (five) while averaging an impressive 14.3 yards per catch.

3. CB Steven Nelson. Nelson was released by the Steelers in an apparent salary cap move last March and he did not latch on with a new team until shortly before training camps were set to open. That worked out well for the Eagles, who brought Nelson in on a one-year deal in late July, as the seventh-year veteran has locked down the cornerback position opposite Darius Slay.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. TE Zach Ertz/QB Joe Flacco. The Eagles have traded away two players since they faced the Bucs in Week Six, sending long-time standout Ertz to the Cardinals the day after that game and shipping Flacco back to the Jets 11 days after that. Dallas Goedert has produced very well as the new number-one tight end for the Eagles and former Buccaneers undrafted rookie Reid Sinnett is now the team's third quarterback.

2. G Isaac Seumalo/G Brandon Brooks/G Jack Driscoll. As good as the Eagles' offensive line has been, it might be even better if injuries hadn't gradually taken out the team's two opening-day starters at guard, Seumalo and Brooks, and one of their replacements, Driscoll. The Eagles have started five different players at right guard, with Nate Herbig in that spot heading into the playoffs.

3. LB Eric Wilson. The Eagles brought in another former Viking in Wilson to compete for a starting linebacker job, and Wilson did indeed start two of the Eagles' first four games, including the opener. However, his playing time gradually decreased over the first half of the season and he was released on November 3. He has since caught on with the Texans.

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