Three issues, two points of view, one game that will show us whether or not this late-season run by the Eagles has been an illusion. Inquirer columnists Marcus Hayes and David Murphy handicap the game, identify their X factors, and debate whether Jonathon Gannon vs. Tom Brady has any hope of ending well for the Birds.
Issue No. 1: The Bucs opened as 8.5-point favorites with the line eventually reaching nine in some places. Is it too high, too low, or just right?
Murphy: First glance says it’s actually a little on the low side, especially when you look over to the AFC and see the Chiefs going off as 12.5-point favorites over the Steelers. Second glance says Vegas knows what it sees.
The Bucs might not be overrated, but they are vulnerable, especially when compared to last year’s Super Bowl-winning team. Just look at their last 10 games: three losses to non-playoff teams, including a 29-19 stinker against the Washington Football Team and a pair of losses to the Saints, plus three games in which they trailed or were tied with less than a minute left in regulation, including one against the lowly Jets.
The Eagles have learned a lot about themselves since their 28-22 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 6. They are better now than they were then, especially when you consider that Andre Dillard and Jack Driscoll both started that game. The Bucs? They’ve lost two top receivers in Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett are both returning from injury in their defensive front seven. Despite what the overall numbers say, you can run on the Bucs. And let’s not forget that Josh Allen rushed for over 100 yards against them. I’m not saying that the Eagles are going to win. But I will be taking the points.
Hayes: It’s absolutely not too high. If there’s ever been a two-touchdown game, this is it.
The most disappointing aspect of the Eagles season lies along the defensive line, where tackle Fletcher Cox and ends Derek Barnett and Ryan Kerrigan combined for 5½ sacks. They’ll face the Bucs’ strongest unit, an offensive line that features three Pro Bowl players — left guard Ali Marpet, center Ryan Jensen, and right tackle Tristan Wirfs — blocking for the least-sacked quarterback, Tom Brady, who got dropped just 22 times despite throwing the most passes, 719.
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What’s more, the Eagles’ greatest weakness lies with their linebackers, the best of whom is thumper T.J. Edwards. Brady didn’t exploit this problem to any great length in the first meeting, a low-stress, 28-22 win in Philadelphia on Oct. 14. That’s because tight end Rob Gronkowski didn’t play in the first game. Brady & Gronk have connected on 14 passes for 252 yards in the last two games. Edwards & Co. have no chance. Neither do the Eagles.
Issue No. 2: Besides Jalen Hurts, which player has the best chance to be the X factor in an Eagles win?
Hayes: Fletcher Cox, as usual. His two worst games of the season, according to profootballfocus.com, came against Tampa Bay and Kansas City, the best teams the Eagles faced. Tom Brady completed 80% of his passes and was never sacked; in fact, he was barely touched.
Granted, Cox gets double-teamed a lot, and defensive tackles should not be gauged by sacks totals alone, but a tackle taking home $16 million has to have more than 3½ sacks in 16 games (he sat out the finale). The last time he had fewer sacks was in 2013, in a 3-4 scheme that minimized his abilities. He’s never had fewer than this year’s 35 tackles in any season in which he played 16 games. Cox turned 31 a month ago. It showed.
He never adjusted to the absence of left defensive end Brandon Graham, lost for the season in Game 2. That’s partly because Cox and Graham could switch spots, with Graham rushing against interior linemen and Cox coming from the outside. That’s also because Graham is excellent against the run. His replacement, Josh Sweat, can’t play inside and is bad against the run.
Brady needs just 2.3 seconds to throw, and every quarterback in the NFL who gets rid of it quicker than him is far more mobile, so, for a guy who lives in the pocket, he has the quickest trigger. Cox must sack Brady at least once and hit him a couple of more times if the Eagles hope to play past Sunday.
Murphy: Cox is a good pick, especially when you consider Brady’s history when his pocket is soft up the middle. But history says you are going to have to score some points to beat this team, and the Eagles will need to gash them with the run to do it. So I’m going with Boston Scott, mostly because I didn’t feel right picking the offensive line as a unit.
The overall numbers say the Bucs have one of the better run defenses in the league, but the tape says something different. The Jets gashed Tampa for 150 yards on 26 carries before the Bucs eked out a win in the closing seconds a few weeks ago. The Saints rushed for 213 yards on 63 carries in their two wins over Tampa Bay. Furthermore, the Bucs have allowed the fifth-highest receiving yardage total to running backs this season.
If the Eagles win, there’s a very good chance a running back is the player of the game. And, given his skill set, there’s a very good chance Scott will be it.
Issue No. 3: Did Jonathan Gannon get a bad rap?
Hayes: Absolutely not. He was, and often still is, unwilling to accept the reality that his defensive line cannot consistently create pressure or get penetration without help from the linebackers and defensive backs.
Over their first seven games, the Eagles blitzed about 10% of the time, the lowest rate in the NFL. Over all 17 games, they blitzed about 16% of the time, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. Why? Because the Gannon is scared to blitz. Worse, he was scared to even bluff.
This problem was magnified because Gannon didn’t let his cornerbacks play tight to the line of scrimmage for most of the season. Why? Because Gannon didn’t want to get beaten deep. The result: In the first nine games, five opposing quarterbacks completed at least 80% of their passes, which raised the overall opposition completion rate to 75.5%. The only reason QBs stopped shredding the secondary is because the Eagles stopped facing competent QBs.
If Brady roasts the Birds again without Gannon putting up a fight, don’t be surprised if Gannon’s head-coaching candidacies suddenly shrivel.
Murphy: It’s easy to blame the defensive coordinator, and there’s no doubt the Bucs have the coaching edge with Todd Bowles. But let’s look at the ingredients both of these guys are working with. Start with Tampa Bay’s secondary: All four starters were Bucs draft picks selected in the last four drafts, none of them higher than No. 45 overall. Three of the four rank among the top 15 percent at their position, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. None of the Eagles’ four starters were draft picks. This is a patched-together group, and it has done patched-together things, with Darius Slay responsible for holding it together.
There’s a reason why the same teams end up fielding good defenses year in and year out. They have a long-standing system in place, and they draft players to fill those positions. Eight of the Bucs’ 11 starters were Tampa Bay draft picks. Seven of them were drafted since 2018. Bowles has had three offseasons to shape his unit and institute his plan. I don’t know whether Gannon is as good as the head-coaching hype suggests. But he’s working with a depth chart that has suffered from years of neglect.