TAMPA — So, maybe the Bucs have a lot of turnovers on Sunday.
Or they commit too many penalties, or miss a critical kick, or fail to convert on enough third downs. There are dozens of ways a good team can blow a football game.
But, realistically, there’s only one way the Bucs should lose to the Eagles:
If they can’t get their offense off the field.
That’s it. That’s Philadelphia’s only chance against a better team. The Eagles have done one thing really well in the second half of the season and that is running the ball and in turn controlling the clock.
C’mon, it’s hard to imagine Philadelphia beating the Bucs in an offensive shootout. And the defense is one of the NFL’s worst when it comes to creating turnovers. So that means the Eagles’ best hope is to use their running game to hog the ball on offense and keep Tom Brady off the field.
The last time these teams met in October, the Bucs were on offense for nearly 40 minutes. That left the Eagles 2-4 and motivated to find a new path to success. The ground game turned out to be the answer.
The following week, Philadelphia rushed the ball 32 times against the Raiders. It started a streak of 11 consecutive games with 30 rushes or more.
How unusual is that in today’s NFL? Well, the Titans were the only other team in 2021 to have 30 running plays or more in 11 games, let alone that many in a row.
“They’re a completely different team than what we (saw) in Week 6,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.
The run-first mentality has made Philadelphia slightly better when it comes to scoring, but it’s made the Eagles drastically better when it comes to keeping opponents out of the end zone.
By the time the Bucs left town after their victory in October, the Eagles were giving up 30.8 points a game. In the 11 games since, they’ve allowed an average of 18.1 points per game.
Now, surely, some of that is due to competition. Philadelphia fattened its record and completed its playoff push by beating a lot of teams with losing records. But the Eagles also limited opposing scoring opportunities by refusing to give the ball up.
Time of possession for opponents went from a little more than 34 minutes a game to less than 28 minutes during that 11-game stretch.
But shouldn’t that play right into Tampa Bay’s strength? After all, the Bucs have given up fewer rushing yards than any defense in the NFL since Bowles arrived in 2019. They should be able to stuff Philadelphia’s running game, no matter how impressive it has been. Right?
Well, yes and no. Tampa Bay’s run defense was still among the best in the league in 2021, but there have been signs of slippage. The Bucs have given up more than 100 rushing yards in five of the last seven games.
Not to mention, Philadelphia has a variety of different looks in the backfield, from smaller, quicker backs (Miles Sanders and Boston Scott) to a bigger downhill runner (Jordan Howard) and a pass catcher (Kenneth Gainwell). The Eagles may have led the NFL in rushing yards, but no single back cracked 800 yards. Instead, quarterback Jalen Hurts led the team in rushing with 784 yards.
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“It’s not only the running backs that run the ball, the quarterback runs the ball, too. The receivers get it on Jet sweeps and tosses, to add to the total,” Bowles said. “They have about six guys that can do different things. And they’ve all got speed. So that makes it very difficult.”
Hurts is the complicating factor. While his running ability gets the most attention, his interception rate and yards-per-attempt are consistent with the league average in his first full season as a starter. That could make it dicey if the Bucs put too many defenders on the line of scrimmage to focus on the run. And with Sanders’ ability to get outside, the Bucs will have to defend from sideline to sideline.
“The way they scheme the offense around (Sanders) and Hurts, they’ve got it going,” defensive end Will Gholston said. “We’re going to really have to follow our fundamentals and keys. They both are explosive.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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