TAMPA ― The Bucs’ season has taken more than a few twists ― not to mention ankle turns, hamstring strains and ligament tears.
But the playoffs are the beginning of a new season, and coach Bruce Arians is hopeful to get back some of the players that have been shelved with injuries.
Arians said Monday that outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett (knee, reserve/COVID-19 list) and Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) should return on defense for Sunday’s wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But the player the Bucs may need back most ― especially against an Eagles team that boasts the NFL’s best rushing offense ― is inside linebacker Lavonte David.
David spent the final three games of the regular-season on injured reserve with a foot injury. Arians said it may be later in the week before the Bucs know his availability for Sunday’s game.
The first eight games this season, the Bucs owned the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense. But they have allowed a team to rush for at least 100 yards four times in the past six games.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Arians said. “I think a big part of it is Lavonte, also. Just his calming influence as a leader out there. And just missed tackles. We missed some tackles out on the edges that we can’t miss, because there were some big gainers.”
Arians said the return of experienced reinforcements should help the linebacking corps.
“For me, it’s having them all fresh for the run and the pass,” Arians said. “To have that four-man rotation, five with Cam Gill. It’s just veteran players play differently than younger players, and sometimes they never panic. Getting those other guys back, I think, would help the run defense tremendously.”
It especially would help inside linebacker Devin White, who has struggled recently with a total of only 10 tackles in the past three games. In the previous 10 games, White averaged 8.42 tackles. He also has only 3.5 sacks on the season after finishing second in that category a year ago with nine.
“It’s part of the way the game is being played, all that perimeter stuff, and he’s a sideline-to-sideline guy, but he’s getting blocked sometimes,” Arians said. “People are accounting for him a little bit more, and he can play better. I think he’d be the first one to tell you. And he might be pressing a little bit with Lavonte out.”
The Bucs will have their hands full with an Eagles offense that eclipsed 175 rushing yards in seven straight games at one point this season.
Tampa Bay won the first meeting between the teams 28-22 on Oct. 14 in Philadelphia. Running back Miles Sanders only had nine rushing attempts but gained 56 yards. The Bucs built a 28-7 lead before quarterback Jalen Hurts brought Philadelphia most of the way back with his arm (115 passing yards, 1 TD) and legs (44 yards, 2 touchdowns).
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“The first half, I thought we handled it really, really well,” Arians said of the Eagles’ offense. “And then the second half, it was more of the offense not staying on the field, giving them too many opportunities. But then they started popping some runs, (Hurts) started making plays with his legs.”
“(Panthers quarterback) Sam Darnold hurt us a little bit with his legs (Sunday), and Jalen is a lot faster. He presents a lot of problems. He’s throwing it well. Obviously, all the read options and RPOs (run-pass option plays) that they do, it’s a different-style offense. So it’s going to take a hell of a concerted effort on everyone being disciplined and tackling well.”
While the Bucs were healthier entering the playoffs last season, there is a different focus this year. Their experience of winning a Super Bowl should come into play this week.
“It’s totally different. They know how to raise the level, I think, and I’m anxious to see us on the practice field this week,” Arians said. “Last year, we almost practiced too hard because they were so excited. You raise your level of everything — preparation, practice, everything for the playoffs, and I can’t wait to see it Wednesday.”
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