The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play their home opener this Sunday when the defending NFL champions visit Raymond James Stadium. The Philadelphia Eagles started their title-defense season off with a win over another NFC South team, the Atlanta Falcons, in Week One, so Sunday's matchup is a battle of 1-0 teams trying to stay undefeated.
The Eagles won their first Super Bowl with a balanced squad that finished third in points and seventh in yards on offense and fourth in both categories on defense. Philadelphia also follows an aggressive strategy, ranking second in the NFL in fourth-down attempts and first in two-point conversions. The Eagles might still be without 2017 MVP candidate Carson Wentz when they take on the Buccaneers, but his replacement under center, Nick Foles, is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and is 23-17 as an NFL starter, including 2-0 against the Buccaneers. Here is a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face in New Orleans to open the season.
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. TE Zach Ertz. Like Greg Olsen in his prime, Ertz is fast and athletic with great hands and he's a matchup nightmare who is central to the Eagles' offensive plans, especially with receivers Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins sidelined. Last season, Ertz was second in the NFL among tight ends with eight touchdowns and third in both receptions (74) and yards (824) despite missing two games. He's also a remarkably consistent producer, with catch totals between 74 and 78 and yardage totals between 824 and 853 in each of the last three seasons. The Eagles lost second tight end Trey Burton in free agency but replaced him with second-round pick Dallas Goedert, and they employ "12" personnel (two tight ends) on a frequent basis.
2. DT Fletcher Cox. DE Brandon Graham led the Eagles with 9.5 sacks last year and had the key defensive player in Super Bowl LII, but it's Cox who powers this deep Philadelphia line. Cox made the Pro Bowl after each of the last three seasons, during which he had 21.5 sacks (he had another in this year's season-opener against Atlanta), though his stats don't tell the full story of how much he impacts a game. Cox can play a two-gap scheme and occupy blockers to create one-on-ones for teammates and he also has a handful of very effective inside moves.
3. T Lane Johnson. Johnson, who mans the right side opposite left tackle Jason Peters – a nine-time Pro Bowler in his own right – was one of two tackles on the Associated Press All-Pro first team last year. Johnson is extremely effective against speed rushers because his first step in a pass set is so effective in cutting off the edge. Once he's established his spot, Johnson anchors extremely well so he can stand up against a rusher even if he has built up a head of steam before contact.
4. S Malcolm Jenkins. The veteran safety is like a quarterback on defense for the Eagles, often responsible for getting everybody in the right place. A Pro Bowler last year and in 2015, he is deployed all over the field; the Eagles have used him at free and strong safety, in the slot and even as a de factor linebacker at times. While neither his interception nor sack totals are overwhelming – he had 16 and 6.5, respectively, over his first nine seasons in New Orleans and Philadelphia – he is a rare do-it-all safety who can drop into the box, cover tight ends one-on-one and excel in single-high and two-deep safety formations.
Philadelphia won a low-scoring opener against Atlanta in Week one despite losing the turnover battle, 2-1. That's uncommon for the Eagles, who took very good care of the football last year, suffering just nine interceptions and 20 turnovers overall. Meanwhile, the Philly defense produced 31 takeaways, second most in the NFL, which lead to a league-best plus-11 turnover ratio. Some other bright spots for the Eagles, statistically, in 201:
· Philadelphia's passing attack was absolutely masterful in the red zone last year. Eagles quarterbacks threw 76 passes inside the 20 in 2017 and 28 of them resulted in touchdowns while none were intercepted. That rate of 36.8% of their red zone passes resulting in points was the best in the league.
· Philadelphia quarterbacks were also not sacked a single time in the red zone all year.
· Though some of it was situational – a lot of big leads during a dominant midseason stretch led to opponents having to abandon the ground game – Philadelphia's top-ranked run defense was legitimately outstanding. The Eagles allowed just 79.2 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per rush last year.
· The Eagles' defense allowed 363 completions last year, but only 177 of them resulted in first downs. That's 48.8% of completions creating first downs, which was the second-lowest mark in the NFL.
· Philadelphia was ninth in the NFL in time-of-possession last year. The league's third-best rushing attack helped with that, but so did a propensity to go for it on fourth down, as noted above, and keep drives alive.
Obviously, the defending champs aren't going to have too many holes. However, Nick Foles was sacked twice by Atlanta in the season opener and the Buccaneers might be able to get into the backfield on Sunday. Despite boasting a well-regarded offensive line, the Eagles were middle of the pack in pass protection in 2017, allowing a sack on 6.38% of their dropbacks. In addition:
· Eagles opponents were able to gain yards after the catch at a pretty decent clip last year. Philadelphia gave up 2,021 YAC last year in total, fourth-most in the NFL, which accounted for 52.0% of their total passing yardage allowed. That was the second-highest YAC percentage in the league.
· Philadelphia's red zone defense allowed touchdowns on 55.26% of their opponents' possessions, which ranked 20th in the NFL. However, the 18.4 points the Eagles gave up overall was fourth best.
· Though it's just one game, Foles and the Eagles' offense had trouble getting the ball downfield in their 18-12 win over Atlanta. While the rushing attack averaged a healthy 4.2 yards per carry, the passing game averaged just 6.6 yards per completion and 3.8 yards per pass attempt. Those are very low numbers, albeit in a very small sample size.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center
NEW FACES IN 2018
The Eagles' roster didn't need a lot of work after the team's Super Bowl season, but every team experiences some changeover in every offseason. Here are some new players on the Eagles' roster who could impact Sunday's game.
1. DE Michael Bennett/DT Haloti Ngata. The Buccaneers poached two players from the Eagles' defensive line in the offseason, signing DT Beau Allen and DE Vinny Curry. However, Curry had been released by the Eagles after a trade for Bennett, and the signing of the veteran Ngata replaces Allen. Both Bennett and Ngata came in as reserves in Philly's still-deep D-Line rotation in the 2018 opener, but Bennett played 45 snaps and Ngata 17.
2. WR Mike Wallace. After 124 catches and 1,765 yards in two seasons in Baltimore, Wallace jumped to the defending champs and has stepped into a starting role opposite Nelson Agholor with Alshon Jeffery on the shelf. Wallace had three targets without a catch in the Eagles' opener, but he's been a big-play maker throughout his career, with an average of 15.0 yards per reception.
3. TE Dallas Goedert. Goedert brings a similar size and skillset to the offense as his established tight end teammate, Zach Ertz, and he immediately replaces the departed Trey Burton in the Eagles two-TE sets. Goedert had just one catch for four yards in his first NFL game but figures to see his production rise as the season continues.
1. QB Carson Wentz. Wentz was in the conversation for league MVP honors last year, in a breakout second season, when he sustained a knee injury that ended his season. Because it happened so late in the 2017 campaign, the recovery period has stretched into the start of 2018. Foles kept the Eagles' Super Bowl train on track and is a proven fill-in, but the Eagles obviously want Wentz on the field as soon as possible.
2. WR Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery proved to be a very good addition in free agency for the Eagles, whose receiving corps had been less than dynamic in Wentz's rookie year. Jeffery caught 57 passes and scored on nine of them. However, he is currently out with a shoulder injury, without a definite timetable for his return.
3. WR Mack Hollins. Philadelphia put Hollins on injured reserve last week due to a groin injury, so he will be out through at least Week Eight.