Keys to the Eagles v. Bucs Game

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles face off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 1 pm at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles are 5.5 to 7 point favorites over the Bucs depending on which site you use, with the line set 44.5 points, which suggests a lower scoring affair.

Full disclosure, I am expecting another frustrating game from the Eagles. This entire season has been predicated on slow first halves followed by the Eagles coming alive in the second. Last Sunday, the Eagles flipped the script, starting strong with a 16-3 lead at the end of the first quarter — sucking us into believing the team had finally turned the corner — only to score three points the rest of the way.

At this point, I think it is time we accept the fact that there won’t be a flipped switch, magical spark, or “aha” moment that turns this season around. 10 weeks into the season, this is who the Eagles are, and they aren’t very good. The only reason they are still relevant is because the rest of the NFC East has been terrible. But that should not change the fact that the Eagles are a bad team. And bad teams don’t tend to turn it around midseason.

But I digress. Let’s breakdown the game and focus on some of the key matchups that will go a long way towards determining its outcome.

Big Picture on the Bucs:

A few weeks ago, this game seemed like a lock on paper. The Eagles had just come off a solid win against their division rival, Dallas Cowboys, and Sam Bradford was starting to look like a competent starting quarterback. But Bradford is now hurt and the Eagles laid an egg against the Dolphins.

To make matters worse, while the Bucs are 4-5, they are playing with newfound confidence on both sides of the ball. Led by rookie quarterback Jameis Winston — who looks every bit the part of a franchise caliber quarterback — the Bucs find themselves winners of three of their last five games.

The Bucs defense was a train wreck during the first six weeks of the year, but has turned things around over the last two weeks. And while they have allowed the sixth most total yards on the year, they are one of the top run defenses in the league, ranking second overall by limiting teams to only 3.4 yards per carry.

The Bucs have lowered their passing yards allowed per game from 243 to 233, thanks to impressive efforts against the Cowboys (186 passing yards) and Giants (243) the last two weeks. During that time, the Bucs have switched cornerbacks to Sterling Moore and undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah. While neither have been spectacular, they have cut down on the mistakes that were allowing too many big plays earlier in the year.

On offense, the Bucs take a balanced approach (53/47 pass to run ratio), but still rely on the run game to set the tone. Doug Marin is fifth in the league in carries and rushing yards, with 161 carries for 706 yards. Charles Sims has been an effective second option for the Bucs, with 66 carries for 302 yards (4.6 ypc) and 22 catches for 251 yards (11.4 ypc). The offense has been stagnant over the last three games, scoring four touchdowns, three of which came on runs from Jameis Winston. But the offense should get a boost today with Vincent Jackson reportedly playing:

Here are some of the key matchups for today’s game:

Eagles Interior Line Against Gerald McCoy

Gerald McCoy often gets lost in the discussion of best defensive tackles in football because the Bucs have largely been irrelevant over the last three plus season. But make no mistake, McCoy is a dominant force up front that could pose a significant challenge to the Eagles underwhelming offensive line, much like Ndamukong Suh did last week.

While I generally avoid PFF.com’s ranking systems, this is the easiest way to show you what I mean instead of just saying “take my word for it.” Below is a chart showing McCoy’s ranking according to PFF.com for defensive tackles in the league compared to Suh:

Name

2012

2013

2014

2015

G McCoy

2

1

2

25

N Suh

4

2

3

3

Again, take these numbers with a grain of salt. I think Suh has been the better player over the last four seasons, but this should give you an understanding of how good McCoy has been. And while McCoy’s play has regressed somewhat this year, don’t let the number 25 ranking fool you, he’s not playing nearly that bad.

Simply put, McCoy is a menace up front, and should pose a significant issue for the Birds. And their offensive line is going to need to improve significantly from last week in order to accomplish anything on offense.

Eagles Offensive Line Generally and in Blitz Pickup

All week we heard that Jason Peters was going to play. But that is looking less certain now, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport:

Losing Peters would obviously be a huge blow to the Eagles, as it would force Lane Johnson to kick out to left tackle and reserve lineman Dennis Kelly — who was absolutely brutal against the Dolphins — to start at right tackle.

At this point, most Eagles fans should be cursing Kelly’s decision to not address the offensive line in each of the last two offseasons. And while I will concede that it is hard for any team to recover from losing two starters to the offensive line, the Eagles were already starting two backup lineman in Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner. In essence, the Eagles are on their third and fourth reserve lineman with Matt Tobin and Dennis Kelly, and it is starting to show.

Last week Kelly made the mistake of not giving the offensive line any help despite their struggles. Kelly should not make that mistake this week. The Bucs have a very good front seven that likes to blitz often. The Eagles need to have Celek and Murray/Sproles help provide Sanchez extra time with which to operate. Otherwise, it could be another long, frustrating day for the offense.

Sticking with the Run

Another major issue for the Eagles today will be getting the ground game going. With the Eagles most effective runner — Ryan Mathews — out today, the onus will fall on DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles to carry the load.

However, the question becomes just how much of an opportunity they will receive. Chip Kelly has shown a tendency to give up on the run game if he sees a decided advantage in the passing attack and/or if the opposing defense is stout against the run. During the first four games of the year, the Eagles averaged only 22.75 carries per game when the offensive line could not run block to save its life.

The Bucs enter this game with the fourth ranked rush defense per FootballOutsiders.com, rank third in allowing only 3.4 yards per carry, and are ranked 10th overall in rushing yards allowed.

The temptation might be there for the Eagles to go for a pass heavy attack. In fact, I largely expect it. But it would be a mistake. As I’ve discussed at length, the Eagles are a much better team when they take a balanced approach. But more importantly, we cannot rely on Mark Sanchez to win this game throwing the football. Asking a quarterback with a 3.8 career interception rate to win the game throwing the football seems like a recipe for disaster. Especially given that his first five drives this year from Sanchez ended with a field goal, an interception, two punts and a turnover on downs.

Stopping the big receivers 

As I mentioned before, Vincent Jackson will be playing today according to ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter. Jackson, at 6’5 230 lbs, will be joined by second year wideout, Mike Evans, who is also 6’5, 231 pounds. On the year, Evans has 40 catches for 662 yards, 16.6 yards per catch, and 1 touchdown. While Evans has been inconsistent this year, leading the NFL in dropped passes with 11, he is still a dynamic receiving threat, especially in the redzone.

This receiving duo will challenge the Eagles secondary. Neither receiver is a burner, but both have good size and are great at high pointing the ball (i.e. catching the ball at its peak). While the Eagles have valued size in their secondary, both Maxwell and Carroll are 6’1, giving the Bucs receivers a four-inch height advantage.

As I mentioned earlier on Twitter, expect to see a lot of jump balls and back shoulder throws today from the Bucs:

Forcing Turnovers from Winston

Last week’s final drive against the Dallas Cowboys perfectly encapsulates the season Jameis Winston is having. He engineered a 56-yard drive that ended with Winston scoring a 1-yard touchdown run with 54 seconds left in the game. But that touchdown was made possible only after his lost fumble was negated by a Cowboys penalty.

In other words, Winston is playing like a rookie: great plays one minute, head scratching plays the next. His numbers on the year bear that out: Winston has completed 57.% of his passes for 2,159 yards, 10 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 80.1.

Again, nothing to fear, but given that Winson is a rookie, those numbers are actually fairly good.

The Eagles need to disguise their blitzes and coverages to confuse Winston and hopefully force him into turnovers. He had gone four consecutive games without a turnover until last week when he tossed two interceptions. The good news for the Eagles is that forcing turnovers is their specialty: they are tied for second in the NFL with 20 total takeaways.

One final thought on Winston before my ill-advised prediction.

This game has the makings of being a close, and probably ugly contest. If the Eagles have a chance to put the Bucs away early on, they need to seize that opportunity. That means scoring touchdowns instead of field goals (or worse, redzone turnovers, cough, Mark Sanchez).

Because if there is one thing I have learned watching Jameis Winston closely over the last three years, it’s that no game is out of reach when he plays. I know that sounds silly to say about a rookie quarterback, but Winston just has that “it” factor. He led his first career NFL comeback victory last week, which is something he did routinely in college. Don’t give him that chance this week.

Conclusion

As you can probably tell by the tenure of this article, I do not feel good about this game. I would feel better if Peters was playing, but signs are pointing to him missing his third straight game. Given how bad the offensive line played last week, and how good the Bucs front seven is playing, I see Eagles dropping this game 24-17.

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