The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Week Six in a Thursday night prime-time showdown, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. After a very brief week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kevin Minter. In the past two seasons, Minter has had a pair of short stints as a replacement for Devin White and has been steady and productive both times. In six nearly complete games (he replaced White after just a couple snaps when White was hurt in Week Two in 2019), Minter has recorded 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery. This is the first time he will be filling in for David, and in so doing he is replacing one of the better coverage linebackers in the league. That will be an important part of his performance Thursday night against an Eagles offense that likes to throw the ball to running backs Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell. With Minter joining White in the starting lineup, the Buccaneers two backups at inside linebacker will be rookies K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard, fifth and seventh-round draft picks, respectively. Neither has played a defensive snap in the NFL yet.
Mike Evans. There were some games in 2020, the first season with Tom Brady at the helm of the Bucs' offense, that the football wasn't finding Evans, either due to extensive double coverage or other talented pass-catchers being open. There were seven games during the season, including the playoffs, in which he was targeted four or fewer times. That has not been the case in 2021. After catching three passes for 24 yards on six targets in the season opener, Evans has been targeted at least eight times in every game and has produced 75 or more yards each time. He has twice scored multiple touchdowns in a game this season, including last Sunday in a win over Miami, one of which came on a go route when he was isolated on the right side of the formation. Neither of those things is uncommon for Evans, who 39 receptions on go routes since 2018, the most in the league in that span. He also has nine touchdowns when isolated on one side of the formation since Brady arrived in 2020; again that's the most in the NFL in that span. Philadelphia's defense ranks third in the league in passing yards allowed and is 10th on Football Outsider's DVOA list, but has had a bit more trouble with number-one receivers. Philly only ranks 23rd in passing defense DVOA against that category of pass-catchers, which even in the Bucs' loaded aerial attack probably best describes Evans.
Jason Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul missed two games with a shoulder injury and was playing with a club on his injured right hand when he returned to action in Week Five, but that didn't stop him from wanting to be on the field as much as possible. He saw action on 41 of the Bucs' 54 defensive snaps, a 76% usage rate that is just a bit below where he usually lands in the mid-80s. Meanwhile, rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka saw his snap count fall to 17. The Bucs will probably seek a bit more balance between those two and Shaq Barrett, and will also usually face more than 54 plays on defense, but it's clear that they want Pierre-Paul on the field a majority of the time. He was the team's leading sack producer in 2020, with 9.5, but is still seeking his first QB takedown of 2021. So far this season, Pierre-Paul has more commonly rushed off the right side of the Buccaneers' defensive line, which on Thursday would have him frequently clashing with left tackle Andre Dillard. A first-round draft pick in 2019, Dillard started four games as a rookie but spent last season on injured reserve with a biceps injury. He was not in the starting lineup to start this season but took over for an injured Jordan Mailata at left tackle in Game Three. He has remained in that spot with Mailata moving over to right tackle since his return. Pierre-Paul will try to win his one-on-ones with Dillard and try to bear down on Jalen Hurts without letting the elusive passer break containment.
Leonard Fournette. In recent weeks, Fournette has looked a lot like the "Playoff Lenny" star who emerged in the Bucs' run to the Super Bowl last winter. He had 138 yards from scrimmage, his highest total as a Buccaneer, in New England in Week Four, including a season-best 91 on the ground. Fournette followed that up with 110 total yards last weekend against Miami while also scoring his first touchdown of the season. While Ronald Jones has done well in more limited opportunities during that span, Fournette has clearly taken up the lead role in the Buccaneers' backfield, and his performance in recent games has given Tampa Bay's offense more balance and more bite on play-action fakes. Fournette has also proved to be a steady producer in the passing game, with at least three targets and three catches in every game, not to mention a critical pass interference flag drawn in the New England win. Philadelphia's defense has given up 142.0 yards on the ground so far this season to rank 30th in run defense, plus 4.3 yards per carry. The Buccaneers will want to take advantage of that early and often, even with the incredible pass-catching weapons surrounding Tom Brady. Says Head Coach Bruce Arians: "The running game is where it all starts for us because you have to keep them in two dimensions defensively so that they can't just tee off on the passer."
Jamel Dean. Dean returned in Week Five from a one-game absence due to a knee injury to bring some much-needed stability back to the Bucs' banged-up secondary. He was the only Tampa Bay defensive back to play every snap against the Dolphins, and he set up a touchdown in the fourth quarter with his first interception of the season. Dean's successful return should help him stand up to the bigger role he'll be playing in the Bucs' defense for weeks to come, with Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting both on injured reserve for an undetermined amount of weeks. "It was a good confidence builder," said Arians of Dean's showing against the Dolphins." He played really, really well. Just continue to practice hard and get ready. We've won a lot of games with Jamel Dean, so I'm not worried about him." Dean could be particularly important this week given the speed that Philadelphia's receiving corps brings to the field – more on that below – as he is the fastest of the Bucs' cornerbacks and has the makeup speed to get back into the play if one of those speedsters gets behind him.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 10%/113.9. Those numbers represent two tendencies in Jalen Hurts' passing game so far in his young career. This year, 10% of all of his passes have been wide receiver screens, the third-highest rate of any quarterback in the NFL. Hurts has also been far more effective when the Eagles use play action. His career passer rating on passes with a fake handoff is 113.9, but it drops to 77.5 without play action. The Buccaneers' defense will need to react quickly to quick throws down the line and diagnose quickly when Hurts is faking a handoff.
- 28/5/27.0. Tampa Bay's passing attack is in high gear, obviously, producing a league-leading 349.4 net yards per game. It is producing big plays in bunches. In fact, the Buccaneers lead the league with 28 completions that went for 20 or more yards, and their five touchdowns on this long pass plays is tied for third. Interestingly, though, the Buccaneers are getting those big overall numbers more with a high number of immediate throws as opposed to a handful of successful shots deep down the field. The Bucs' average gain on its 20+-yard completions is 27.0 yards, which actually ranks 26th in the league in that category.
- 84.3%/61.1%/9.3%. The Buccaneers playoff odds increased significantly in Week Five when they beat the Dolphins to get to 4-1 rather than dropping to 3-2. They can take another encouraging leap with a fifth win in Philadelphia. Since the playoff field expanded in 1990, teams that started a season with a 5-1 record exactly have made the playoffs 84.3% of the time, won their divisions 61.1% of the time and won the Super Bowl 9.3% of the time. For teams that start 4-2, those rates drop to 63.6% for the playoffs, 33.3% for the division crown and 4.4% for the Lombardi Trophy.
- 23.1%/1.97, 48.6%/4.82. Given the Eagles' excellent average of 5.2 yards per carry and the Bucs' current rushing offense ranking of 26th, it seems counterintuitive that Tampa Bay might have an advantage on the ground Thursday night, particularly when trying to build a lead in the first half. That's largely because of how good the Bucs' rush defense is. Opponents have only run the ball on 23.1% of their offensive snaps in the first half against Tampa Bay, the lowest mark in the league by a huge margin. And when they have tried to run, they've only picked up 1.97 yards per carry, also best in the league by a huge margin. In contrast, Philadelphia's opponents have run the ball on 48.6% of their snaps in the first half, the second-highest mark against any defense, and have been rewarded with 4.82 yards per carry.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- As noted above, Kevin Minter will be stepping into the starting lineup for the injured Lavonte David, joining Devin White in the middle of the defense. The Bucs will also be without Rob Gronkowski again, meaning a large uptick in snaps for Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. And Mike Edwards will once again start at safety with Antoine Winfield, Jr. unable to exit the concussion protocol in time to make the trip to Philly on Wednesday.
- Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday, making it almost certain he will miss Thursday's game. Through the first five games, Goedert has received slightly more playing time than veteran tight end Zach Ertz, with 115 snaps in one-TE groupings to 97 for Ertz. Goedert is fourth among Eagles pass-catchers with 15 receptions, third with 216 yards and first with two touchdown catches. The third tight end on Philly's roster is Jack Stoll, an undrafted rookie who has logged 33 offensive snaps.
- With Week One starters Isaac Seumalo, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson all on injured reserve or otherwise unavailable, the Eagles have used four different offensive line combinations in the past four weeks. Last Sunday against Carolina, Philadelphia used this lineup: LT Andre Dillard, LG Landon Dickerson, C Travis Kelce, RG Jack Driscoll and RT Jordan Mailata. After snapping a three-game losing streak with a comeback win over the Panthers, the Eagles intend to stick with that same O-Line lineup against the Buccaneers.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE EAGLES
Philadelphia's offense has a new look in 2021 with Jalen Hurts at the helm, as he has directed the league's 12th-ranked passing attack while also leading the team with 256 rushing yards. Hurts is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has already scored three times on the ground, including twice in last week's win over the Panthers. The Eagles' pass defense is one of only three in the NFL giving up fewer than 200 yards per game and is also fourth in the league with 6.16 yards allowed per pass play, thanks in part to a robust pass rush. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Speed. That's the challenge for the Buccaneers' defense in Week Six, matching a receiving corps that is brimming with speed and big-play ability. So far, the Eagles' top big-playmaker is Quez Watkins, a 2020 sixth-round pick who had all of seven receptions as a rookie. This year, he has 13 grabs already and has turned them into 267 yards, averaging 20.5 yards per catch. This season, the Eagles added another extremely fast receiver, first-round pick DeVonta Smith, to the group. Smith hasn't hit on many big plays yet but has already run 60 go routes as the Eagles try to take advantage of his jets. The team's 2020 first-round selection, Jalen Reagor, can also fly despite a per-catch average of just 8.2 yards so far this season. In fact, Reagor and Watkins are responsible for two of the five fastest top speeds in the NFL by players with the ball in their hands. Reagor's top speed of 21.74 miles per hour currently ranks third in the league while Watkins' top mark of 21.62 miles per hour is fifth.
Pressure. That's the challenge for Tampa Bay's offense this week, and it's going to come from all over the front line. Despite blitzing at the lowest rate of any team in the league (14%), the Eagles are routinely pressuring opposing quarterbacks thanks to a talent-laden front line. Last week, for instance, the Eagles pressured Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold on 19 of his 40 dropbacks. The star of that group so far in 2021 is defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who leads the NFL with a pressure rate of 21.0% on his pass rushes and already has six sacks. However, he is far from alone in stressing opposing blockers. The Eagles have four players who have already reached double digits in QB pressures this season in Hargrave, Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat and Fletcher Cox. Against the Panthers, four different Philly pass-rushers finished with six or more pressures, only the second time any team has done that in the past four seasons. When the Eagles did get pressure on Darnold he completed just five of 16 passes, with two interceptions.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On Tom Brady, who leads the league with 1,767 passing yards, and how much better of a grasp he has on the Buccaneers' offense in 2021:
"Much better. He has total understanding of it now. When he's saying things there's pictures now. I say when a quarterback calls the plays, he sees a picture. Last year, they were just words. Now, there's pictures and he can think about coverage and put the whole thing together. Well, we're talking about 1.5 seconds, two seconds before all of that has to happen and yeah, he can do that now."