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January 11, 2022

Eagles vs. Buccaneers: Five matchups to watch, when Philly has the ball

Eagles NFL
011122DeVontaSmith Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

DeVonta Smith is good, so the Eagles should have Jalen Hurts throw the ball to him.

The Philadelphia Eagles are back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, and as the 7-seed, they'll have the most difficult route to the Super Bowl in the NFC. First up will be the 2-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers, followed by the 1 seed Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field if they're able to advance to the divisional round.

Since it's the playoffs, we'll have a matchups post for each side of the ball. We'll start with the Eagles' offense against the Buccaneers defense. (You can also find our five matchups when Tampa has the ball, here.)

1) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. the Buccaneers' run defense

The Buccaneers had the best run defense in the NFL in 2019 and 2020. That was by Todd Bowles' design. What Bowles wants to do defensively is shut down the run, make opposing offenses one-dimensional, thus more predictable and easier to defend. Here are the Bucs' run defense DVOA rankings since 2019, when Bowles became their defensive coordinator:

Year Bucs run defense DVOA ranking 
2021 12 

As you can see, they fell off a bit in 2021.

In the Eagles' Week 6 matchup earlier this season against the Bucs, Nick Sirianni's game plan did not include a run presence. In the first half, Eagles running backs combined for one measly rushing attempt. They essentially gave Bowles exactly what he wanted, which was a one-dimensional, predictable offense. The Bucs' defense achieved their No. 1 objective just by showing up.

At that point in the season, the Eagles were a finesse offense, through no fault of the players. They were unable to be physical when the play caller simply opted not to run the ball, almost at all in some games. And you know who loves that? Defenses! By completely ignoring the run, the Bucs' defense was in attack mode all night, and they stayed in attack mode.

The Eagles did eventually run the ball late in that game, oh and hey(!) they had some success with it, but it was too late.

Sirianni and the Eagles offense have come a long way since Week 6, and their offensive approach is completely different these days. They are now the most run-heavy offense in the NFL. Bowles won't have his "shut down the run" victory just by showing up on Sunday.

Back in Week 6, Miles Sanders was healthy, Kenny Gainwell was the No. 2, Boston Scott didn't yet have a rushing attempt on the season yet, and Jordan Howard was still on the practice squad.

Howard played against Washington Week 16, but he did not look like his normal self, while Sanders has been out since Week 16 with a broken hand.

"We're hopeful for Miles this week," Sirianni said on Monday. "Again, that's why we didn't put him on IR way back when he did have the hand injury. So, we're hopeful for him. We’re hopeful for Jordan this week and Boston and Kenny. So, I think we'll have our full stable of backs and really excited about where our backfield is. I think a lot of teams in this league would like the depth we have at this position."

The Eagles really need at least of one of Sanders or Howard to be close to 100 percent in this game, but ideally they'll have both at close to full strength. That positional group probably benefited the most from the team resting starters Week 18.

2) The Eagles' interior offensive line vs. Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh

That Bucs run defense starts up front in the middle of the line with Vea (6'4, 347) and Suh (6'4, 313), who are big, powerful, and nasty. The Bucs showed how valuable Vea is to their defensive scheme, as they locked him up to a four-year extension worth $73 million, and $42 million guaranteed. How much do the Bucs care about stopping the run? Well, Vea only has 11.5 sacks in four seasons, so they're not paying him because he's an elite pass rusher, though he is successful pushing the pocket in the passing game, thus creating more opportunities for Tampa's edge rushers.

The trio of Jason Kelce, Landon Dickerson, and Nate Herbig need to match the physicality of Vea and Suh early, and set the tone, not have the tone set on them.

3) Shaquil Barrett vs. Jordan Mailata

The Bucs have a good trio of edge rushers in Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Joe Tyron-Shoyinka, but Barrett is the clear star of the group. In three years with the Bucs since signing with them in 2019, Barrett has 37.5 sacks and 11 forced fumbles. He also had four sacks in four games during Tampa's playoff run last season.

Barrett rushes from both sides, but his style could be more problematic for Mailata than Lane Johnson. While Mailata is a brick wall against power rushers, he is sometimes susceptible to speed rushers with effective dip moves around the edge. I would expect the Bucs to get Barrett matched up against Mailata in obvious passing situations.

4) Dallas Goedert vs. the Bucs' linebackers, whoever they may be

Goedert did not play against the Bucs Week 6 because he contracted COVID before the game. Zach Ertz started, and had four catches for 29 yards and a TD. Ertz could have had more, if Hurts didn't miss him on a sideline throw that should have been completed in between the corner and the safety.

The Eagles missed Goedert in that game, as starting linebacker Lavonte David and starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr. were both out. Winfield will play on Sunday, but David could be out once again, as he is still recovering from a foot injury. He is on injured reserve but eligible to come off it. Even if David is good to go, he likely won't be 100 percent. He is easily the Bucs' best coverage linebacker.

Goedert should be able to take advantage of matchups against a potentially hobbled David, his backup Kevin Minter, or a much smaller 6'0" Devin White. 

5) DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert vs. the Eagles' other targets in the passing game

During the regular season, Sirianni tried to scheme up touches for Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins on occasion to keep them involved. Partly as a result of that, DeVonta Smith only averaged 6.1 targets per game. The top five most targeted players during the regular season looked like this for the Eagles:

 DeVonta Smith104 
 Dallas Goedert76 
Quez Watkins 62 
Jalen Reagor 57 
Kenny Gainwell 50 

In the regular season, Smith and Goedert combined for 38.4 percent of the team's targets. In the playoffs, they need to account for something closer to 60 percent or more. Give your best players more opportunities when it matters.

The Eagles were committed to taking deep shots against the Bucs Week 6, and they were actually able to draw a pair of long pass interference calls that eventually led to scores. It's noteworthy that Tampa started an over the hill Richard Sherman Week 6 due to injuries. I can't imagine that the Eagles' game plan will be to chuck it down the field this time around. 

The Bucs have a decent trio of corners in Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Jamel Dean. Davis and Murphy-Bunting are the starters, with Murphy-Bunting having extra responsibility on his plate, as he moves inside to the slot in nickel, with Dean playing on the outside. It's a solid, but unspectacular group. If Smith had Jalen Ramsey following him all over the field, then sure, you need your other receivers to step up. But unless they're doubling him or some other drastic measure, let Hurts feed him.

The Eagles are 8-point underdogs, and not expected to win this game. They should at least allow their best players to try to make plays. Don't lose, look back, and say, "Yeah, maybe we should have thrown it some more to DeVonta."

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