Early Birds: Eagles-Buccaneers predictions
The Inquirer's Jeff McLane and Zach Berman offer predictions for the Eagles-Buccaneers game.
1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: The Bucs defense has decent numbers when it comes to yards per play. It's third in the NFL in yards per run (3.6 avg.) and 17th in yards per pass (7.4). But where Tampa falters -- and this usually can be said of any defense that struggles -- is on third down and in the red zone. The Bucs are 27th in the league on third down and 31st in the red zone. They aren't good in big spots. The same could be said of the Eagles offense. They are 29th on third down with a 32 percent success rate. For comparison, the top-ranked Patriots have a 48.7-percent success rate. In the red zone, the Eagles rank 22d, having converted 14 of 23 possessions inside the 20 into touchdowns. The top-ranked Jets have a 93.5 success rate. So what does this all mean? Who will win a possible stalemate of inefficiency? I think the Bucs have some advantages up front. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will be a handful for the Eagles interior of line. Matt Tobin and Jason Kelce will have their second straight tough test a week after getting manhandled by Ndamukong Suh. Defensive end William Gholston should give Dennis Kelly, who is expected to get his third straight start at right tackle, plenty to think about. Lavonte David is a talented second-level linebacker, although he's struggled this season with tackling. The Eagles should be able to attack the Bucs coverage, though. I'd use Zach Ertz whenever matched up against linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Zach Berman: This matchup will depend much on Mark Sanchez, assuming he starts. I've always liked the way Sanchez operates within the offense – he plays with tempo, he makes quick decisions, he can move in the pocket. The issue with him has always been turnovers, and you saw that again last week. Tampa Bay only has seven interceptions this season, but that hasn't stopped Sanchez before. Simply said, he must take better care of the ball. Sanchez has a strong connection with Ertz and Jordan Matthews, and I'd expect them both to have a big role in the offense with Sanchez. With Ryan Mathews not expected to play, the Eagles' run game will rely mostly on DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles. And how they do will really depend on the offensive line, which must prove that last week was an aberration. They could have Jason Peters back this week, but the key is Kelce. I think he plays better this week – although McCoy is a tough matchup inside. The Bucs allow 26.3 points per game. That's a good sign for the Eagles. If they can hit that number, they'll win this game. I think they do.
2. How will the defense do?
McLane: Doug Martin and Mike Evans – those are the two guys the Eagles defense has to worry about on Sunday. Veteran Vincent Jackson is typically another threat, but he has been inactive the last three games with a knee injury and hasn't practice yet this week. Martin and Evans, meanwhile, make the Bucs engine go. Martin (4.4 yards per carry) is a tough, physical runner. He's also dangerous as a receiver (21 catches for 188 yards and a score). Evans is a big target (6-foot-5, 231 pounds). He's the kind of receiver the Eagles had in mind when they signed the lanky Byron Maxwell. What happens up front, of course, will go a long way in deciding the Eagles' success on defense. The Bucs are extremely susceptible on the edges. Rookie left tackle Donovan Smith protects quarterback Jameis Winston's blindside. Brandon Graham has to be licking his chops. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus will see a bunch of Connor Barwin, and maybe some Vinny Curry on stunts and twists.
Berman: My guess is the Eagles give up yards on Sunday, but they also force turnovers. I know Tampa is running the ball well, but the Eagles usually have a stout rush defense. I'd be concerned about Evans, although he'll have his catches. It's the interceptions that will be key. Winston has nine this season. He had two last week. There will be opportunities for the Eagles' defense, which has 12 interceptions this season. I'm curious the status of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson, both of whom are big losses for the Bucs. You mentioned Martin, but pay attention to Charles Sims on passing downs. He's a dangerous pass catcher out of the backfield. I'd like Tampa's offense more with a health Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins. The've only touched 30 twice this season. I don't know if there's enough firepower yet to beat the Eagles.
3. Who's a player to watch?
McLane: Darren Sproles should see more playing time with Ryan Mathews (concussion) unlikely for Sunday. He hasn't been thrilled with the way he's been used this season, but he should at least get some more opportunities vs. the Bucs. There has to be a way to get Sproles lined up against David or Alexander. And how about some more screens to get him into space? Sproles hasn't had a misdirection screen called for him since the first Dallas game.
Berman: I'm watching Sanchez. This is why he's here. The Eagles brought him back to be in this role and help them win games if Bradford is down. As I said above, I think Sanchez is a good quarterback in the Eagles' offense. But the bad turnovers are unacceptable. I also want to see how often Sanchez throws beyond the numbers. He went mostly to the inside targets last year. That's been the Eagles' offense this year, and I don't know if Sanchez breaks that trend.
4. What's your prediction?
McLane: I thought there was little chance the Eagles could lose to the Dolphins last week. I still can't believe they lost to an opponent that clearly didn't have as much talent. But that's what happens in the NFL when you make countless mistakes. Those other guys are getting paid, too. The Bucs aren't anywhere near as deep as the Eagles. They have a rookie quarterback. The best piece on their offensive line is 80-year-old guard Logan Mankins. But the Eagles can't be trusted against an inferior opponent. You never know what kind of team you're going to get week to week, and there's even more uncertainty with Mark Sanchez likely at quarterback. He's only marginally worse than Sam Bradford, but when he's hot, he's hot and when he's cold, he's ice cold. All that being said, I'm going with the Birds. I don't see Winston having much time in the pocket. Eagles 31, Bucs 17.
Berman: This pick is not an endorsement of the Eagles. They have problems, and they can lose this game. But if they lost to Tampa Bay at home, then there's no way around calling them a bad team. At this point, I just think they're an inconsistent team. I see Sanchez moving the offense and the defense forcing turnovers. It's a close game, but the Eagles are the better team on Sunday. (And if they lose, it's hard to see them salvaging this season.) Give me Eagles 28, Buccaneers 27.