Eagles first-year coach Nick Sirianni devoted most of his energy over the past 36 hours toward scouting the team’s upcoming NFC wild-card opponent, the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Following the regular-season finale, the Eagles needed to wait for Sunday’s slate of NFL games to conclude to find out their playoff opponent. But Sirianni admitted the coaching staff already had a heavy lean on scouting the Bucs because Tampa was calculated to be the Eagles’ most likely opponent.
Turns out, it was time well spent. Kickoff between the Eagles and Bucs is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
“The percentages said we were going to play Tampa, so more of our emphasis went into Tampa,” Sirianni said. “A lot of our focus was on Tampa and it’s nice when it comes out that way, where you’ve put in the work there and you don’t have to start again.”
The Eagles dropped the first meeting between the two teams on Oct. 15 at Lincoln Financial Field. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady diced up the defense to the tune of 297 passing yards with two touchdowns and one interception and a 80.1% completion rate. The Eagles lost, 28-22, although the game really wasn’t that close. Tampa led 28-7 late in the third quarter before the Eagles added two touchdowns in garbage time.
To his credit, Sirianni’s offense has evolved in a multitude of ways since that Thursday night defeat.
What’s most evident: The Eagles have established an identity behind a run-heavy game plan and stout offensive line.
During the loss to the Bucs, running back Miles Sanders registered just one carry in the first half and nine total in the game. Fellow tailbacks Boston Scott, Kenneth Gainwell, and Jordan Howard did not register a single carry.
Fast forward to present day and the Eagles are the NFL’s best rushing team with a league-leading 159.7 yards per game. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has served as a crucial dynamic to the success on the ground thanks to his ability as a dual threat. He leads the NFL in explosive plays (106) and is first among quarterbacks in rushing yards (784). His 10 rushing touchdowns broke Michael Vick’s franchise record of nine in 2010.
On the Bucs side, Brady is the director of the league’s most efficient passing offense (307.6 yards per game). However, the Bucs roster has been depleted in recent weeks. Wide receiver Chris Godwin tore an ACL, ending his season, and wideout Antonio Brown is no longer with the team following his dramatic exit last week during a game against the Jets. The Bucs are hopeful to regain starting running back Leonard Fournette, who has been on injured reserve with a hamstring.
“We’re both different teams than we were in Week 6,” Sirianni said. “There is no doubt about that and that’s what we’re working through now. But that’s the nature of the NFL. Unfortunately, guys go down with injuries and the next guy has to step up.
“What I see in this team is they’re well-coached. I really believe that with this Tampa team that we’re playing, the guys are coming into their place have been coached well. There’s no doubt they’re different, but they also have stability at the quarterback position with one of the best players to ever play this game. The things that he likes to do and that he’s done throughout his career, you’re still seeing those concepts.”
After the Bucs clinched the No. 2 seed, Brady previewed the wild-card matchup with the Eagles.
“We have to do everything we have to do to get the win,” Brady said. “This is a football team that has been playing really well – good on offense, they have a very good defense, good front, very healthy. It’s going to be a very tough game.”
Of their 17 games, the Eagles have only one victory against a team that finished with a winning record (Saints, 9-8). The Eagles went 0-6 against playoff teams.
“We’re very excited for the opportunity our team has to go out there and to be one of the few teams that get in the playoffs and to be able to play for everyone’s goal,” Sirianni said. “We’re going to prepare like crazy for this game. ... We’re going to stay the same way. That’s my philosophy, that’s how I was raised in this business, and I think that’s what good coaching is.
“We know we have a challenge. We know we’re playing a very good team, the defending Super Bowl champs, and we’re going to prepare like crazy ... to do everything we can to get to put ourselves in position to win this week.”
Sanders suffered a broken hand Dec. 26 against the Giants. His injury required surgery, but the Eagles’ lead running back is expected to return from his two-week absence and there’s a chance he’ll be available to play against the Bucs.
“We’re hopeful for Miles,” Sirianni said. “That’s why we didn’t put him on IR. We’re hopeful for him.
“I think we’ll have our full stable of backs and I’m really excited about where our backfield is.”
Sanders is the Eagles’ second-leading rusher — behind Hurts — with 754 yards on 137 carries. The third-year tailback did not register a single touchdown during the regular season, although he is the team’s most explosive option (5.5 yards per carry). Scott leads the running backs in total touchdowns with seven, while rookie Kenneth Gainwell has six and Jordan Howard three.
The team also placed tight end Tyree Jackson (knee), wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (finger), and offensive lineman Brett Toth (knee) on injured reserve and signed running back Jason Huntley from the practice squad to the active roster. Richard Rodgers, also up from the practice squad, will provide depth at tight end behind starter Dallas Goedert and Jack Stoll.
“Richard Rodgers has done a good job every time he’s got an opportunity to play,” the coach said. “He brings good veteran leadership, great ability to block — not only in the first level, but at the second level as well. He’ll be the one that’s elevated up and ready to go. He’s had to step up in that role a couple times this year for a couple different reasons. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him to be able to do that.”
11 players activated from reserve/COVID-19 list
Exactly one week after 12 Eagles tested positive for COVID-19, every single player has been activated from the reserve/COVID list.
Of the 12 players, only center Jason Kelce cleared protocol in time to play in the regular-season finale.
But on Monday afternoon, the team activated the remaining players, including Scott, Howard, Goedert, Stoll, offensive lineman Nate Herbig, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, linebackers Genard Avery and Alex Singleton, cornerback Avonte Maddox, and safeties Rodney McLeod and Marcus Epps.