The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card playoff round on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski steamrolls into the playoffs with consecutive 100-yard receiving games and the look of vintage Playoff Gronk. Despite missing five games and all but a few snaps in a sixth contest, Gronkowski still easily surpassed his receiving totals from his first season as a Buccaneer in 2020, which came after a year of premature retirement. He caught 55 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns, with three different multi-touchdown games and upped his per-game yardage average from 38.9 in 2020 to 66.8 this year. There's a very good chance that Gronkowski will be heavily involved in the Bucs' passing attack for the third week in a row because the Eagles defense has had some problems with opposing tight ends this year. Philadelphia surrendered 107 receptions and 14 touchdowns to tight ends during the regular season, both of which were league highs, and 1,035 receiving yards, which was the second most. Gronkowski and Tom Brady also happen to be the most prolific postseason touchdown-pass combination in NFL history, with 14 scoring connections.
Shaquil Barrett. Arians sounded an optimistic note about Barrett's availability for the Wild Card game early on Friday, and then Barrett was not given a game-status designation on the injury report later that afternoon. His presumed return is a big boost for the Buccaneers' defense. Barrett led the Bucs with 10.0 sacks and 22 quarterback pressures despite missing the last two games and he's produced 41.5 sacks in 50 games as a Buccaneer, playoffs included. Also like Fournette, Barrett was a force of nature in the playoffs last year, recorded four sacks and racking up eight pressures in the Super Bowl alone. The return of Barrett and fellow outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul could also help the Bucs' fix their recent defensive woes against the run, as both Barrett and Pierre-Paul are underrated run defenders who can set the edge. And it's the edges where opponents have been attacking the Bucs. Tampa Bay's defense finished third overall in rushing yards allowed but was first in yards per carry between the tackles (3.0) and 30th in yards per carry outside the tackles (5.3). The Eagles are well-positioned to exploit that discrepancy, as quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Miles Sanders ranked second and third in the NFL in the regular season with per-carry averages of 6.9 and 6.8, respectively, on runs outside the tackles.
Giovani Bernard. The Bucs had hoped to get Leonard Fournette back for the start of the playoffs but he was not activated from injured reserve at the end of the week and will thus be unavailable on Sunday, as is running back Ronald Jones. That will make second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn the primary ballcarrier against the Eagles, as he was in the team's Week 18 win over Carolina. However, the Bucs did get one backfield contributor back, as Bernard was activated from injured reserve on Saturday. Bernard missed the last four games of the regular season due to a hip injury but prior to that had served primarily as a third-down back. That's a specific sort of weapon the Bucs' banged-up offense could use with Fournette and his 69 regular-season catches out of the picture. The long-time Cincinnati standout only carried the ball eight times for 58 yards in his 12 games played in the regular season but he caught 23 passes for 123 yards. Bernard is also another good option for Tom Brady in the red zone, as demonstrated by his three touchdown catches.
Antoine Winfield, Jr. Winfield was responsible for one of the most important defensive plays during the Bucs' postseason run last year, as it was his third-quarter forced fumble against the Saints' Jared Cook that led to the game-tying touchdown as the Bucs rallied for a 30-20 win in New Orleans in the Divisional Round. The Buccaneers count on Winfield, who received AP All-Pro votes in his second season, to come up with takeaways and big plays in critical situations. Against the Eagles, he will face a significant challenge in trying to figure out when quarterback Jalen Hurts is going to run so he can lend his support in run defense. The Buccaneers' defensive backs, in particular safeties Winfield and Jordan Whitehead, will be important parts of the efforts to keep Hurts and the Eagles' deep stable of backs from getting around the edge on outside runs. Winfield and Whitehead will also be dealing with tight end Dallas Goedert, whose strong play made it easier for the team to trade long-time star Zach Ertz away during the season. Goedert finished with 830 yards and four touchdowns on 56 catches, with a per-catch average of 14.8 that is outstanding for a tight end.
Ali Marpet. One of the Bucs' three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, also drew some All-Pro votes and his dominant play on the interior of the offensive line will be especially important this Sunday. The Eagles rarely blitz but still produce a high amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks (more on that below). That's because they have a talented and experienced front four in ends Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett and defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox. Hargrave and Cox, in particular, are a challenge for any opposing line, and Hargrave led all NFL interior linemen in pressures this season. Marpet will have to work hard to keep Hargrave at bay, but he and his fellow linemen have held up very well against many similar challenges this year. The Buccaneers allowed the league's lowest pressure rate and produced the most passing yards and the second-most points in 2021. Marpet is also one of the team's clear leaders in his seventh season and his playoff experience from a year ago will help him manage the heightened intensity and keep him and has linemates focused on the details and on the same page.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 242. That's the combined number of playoff games in which the players on Tampa Bay's current roster have played. Obviously, Tom Brady (45) and Rob Gronkowski (20) spike that number from their Patriot years, but many of the Bucs' core players got their first taste of postseason action just last season. The players were a new experience in 2020 for the likes of Lavonte David, Mike Evans, Will Gholston, Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith. Center Ryan Jensen, who had just a one-game non-starting playoff cameo with the Ravens in 2014, said the 2021 Buccaneers are a calmer and more emotionally-level team heading into this year's playoffs as compared to a season ago. Only the Kansas City Chiefs' roster has more previous playoff games played, with 250.
· 912/544/456/425/784. The Eagles have the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack, but they do not rely on one workhorse back. In fact, with the quartet of Miles Sanders (912), Kenneth Gainwell (544), Boston Scott (456) and Jordan Howard (425) they are the only team to have four different running backs who each gained more than 400 yards from scrimmage during the regular season. And that's not even counting quarterback Jalen Hurts, who also rushed for 784 yards. Sanders led that foursome of running backs in scrimmage yards and rushing yards (754), Gainwell led them in receiving yards (253) and Scott led them in touchdowns (seven).
· 16.2%/31.2%/24-25. Tom Brady was only pressured on 16.2% of his dropbacks this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which was not only the lowest mark for any quarterback in the NFL in 2021 but also across the last five seasons. Meanwhile, the Eagles, while ranking low on the NFL's sack chart, finished third in the league with a pressure rate of 31.2%. Part of the reason that Brady only suffered 22 sacks is that he has routinely gotten rid of the ball quickly and the Bucs' offense has thrived in the quick passing game. Against the Eagles in Week Six, Brady threw 19 quick passes (released within 2.5 seconds of the snap) and completed 18 for 144 yards and a touchdown.
· 12.3/19.5. Is the Buccaneers' defense poised to go on another postseason tear, with the possible returns of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte David? Stingy defenses have been key to both of Tampa Bay's two previous Super Bowl championships. The Buccaneers allowed just 12.3 points per game in the 2002 playoffs and just 19.5 in last year's four postseason contests.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Outside linebackers Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Anthony Nelson were all out or limited to start the week of practice but none received a game-status designation on Friday's injury report so it appears all three will be ready to go on Sunday. Pierre-Paul has missed the last three games and Barrett the last two, and with both of them out the Bucs' defense only produced three sacks. Two of those were courtesy of Nelson, who has been on the ascent in his third season but came out of last week's game with an ankle injury that had Arians concerned early in the week.
· The Eagles only listed two players as questionable on their Friday injury report, but both are starters up front. Defensive end Josh Sweat, who is tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks played every game except the season finale, in which the Eagles rested most of their starters, but did not practice this week due to illness. Long-time Washington standout Ryan Kerrigan is listed as Sweat's backup on the Eagles' depth chart. Philadelphia's offensive line could be without right guard Nate Herbig, who was limited all week with an ankle injury. Herbig is one of five players who have started at right guard this season for the Eagles, who lost Week One starting guards Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks to injured reserve. Seventh-round rookie Jack Anderson started the Eagles' Week 18 game at right guard when the Eagles rested their starters.
· The Buccaneers added cornerback Carlton Davis to the injury report with a back ailment late in the week, and both he and fellow starter Sean Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) were listed as questionable to play on Sunday. Jamel Dean (hamstring) was not given a game-status designation, so he and some combination of Pierre Desir, Ross Cockrell and Dee Delaney could start if Davis and Murphy-Bunting can't go.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE EAGLES
As has been noted above and repeatedly throughout the week, Philadelphia has a high-powered rushing attack led by quarterback Jalen Hurts, who was used on more designed runs this season than any other passer in the league. The Eagles' offense has also performed quite well on third downs (45.7%, 4th in the NFL) and in the red zone (62.3% touchdown rate, 6th). Philly's offensive line placed two players, center Travis Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson, on the Associated Press All-Pro team on Friday. The Eagles' defense is balanced – 10th overall, ninth against the run, 11th against the pass – and is allowing just 5.20 yards per play. Philadelphia's kicker, Jake Elliott, made 30 of 33 field goal tries and all 44 of his extra point attempts. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
The Hargrave-Cox duo in the middle of the Eagles' front might make the Buccaneers want to draw up some double-team blocks with their interior linemen, but leaving the tackles – even two excellent ones in Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs – on an island might not be a good idea. That's because the Eagles have speed to spare off the edges. Both of their starting ends, Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat, have logged an average get-off time at the snap of 0.78 seconds, which puts both of them in the NFL's top five in that category in 2021. Still, attention must be paid to Hargrave, who led all NFL plyers in QB pressures when lined up as an interior defensive lineman, with 58.
Tampa Bay's defense backs are going to have to do a good job of "plastering" their opponents because sustained coverage is a must against Hurts and the Eagles' offense. Not only does Hurst scramble for yards and get a number of designed runs per game, but he can also extend plays before getting off passes downfield. Hurts' average "time to throw" (TTT) is 3.12 seconds, easily the longest in the league. In fact, he is the only quarterback in the NFL to have a TTT over three seconds over the past two seasons. The pressure will be on the Bucs' defensive front, too, as Hurts has proved very good at avoiding sacks when plays start to break down and he's buying time. He has only been sacked 16% of the time that he's extended pass plays to a TTT of over four seconds, the lowest percentage in the NFL.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how various players have stepped up to help Tom Brady keep the offense in high gear despite a rash of injuries:
"I think that's been our motto since we got here. We're going to score points. [We] don't know who's going to do it or how we're going to do it, but we're going to get points on the board. That next man up philosophy is ingrained in this team and guys down the stretch here have made some great opportunities and made the most of them. I think Tom has a much better feel this year than last [year] and once he figures you out, you're in trouble."