Mon, 24 Jan 2022

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tampa Bay has a Pro Bowl-laden offensive line and the league's fewest sacks allowed but the Eagles' powerful defensive front, led by Javon Hargrave, has been able to get consistent pressure without blitzing Scott Smith

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon in the Wild Card Round of the 2021 NFC playoffs. Who has the upper hand when the Buccaneers' offense is on the field? Let's take a closer look.

For the second straight year, the Buccaneers will begin their postseason journey against an NFC East team featuring a stingy defense led by a dominant front. The Buccaneers are at home this time, at least, after last year's Wild Card trip to Washington to take on Chase Young, Jonathan Allen and company. This time it's Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox leading the way as the Eagles' defense tries to slow down the NFL's second-highest scoring offense.

Overall, the Buccaneers will pit the NFL's second-ranked offense in terms of yards against the Eagles' 10th-ranked defense. Tampa Bay scored 30.1 points per game in the regular season, second only to the Cowboys' 31.2, while Philadelphia allowed 222.6 points per game to rank 18th on defense. That number was skewed somewhat at the end of the season by a 51-26 loss to Dallas in which the Eagles played mostly reserves; they had previously held five straight opponents and seven of their last nine to 18 points or fewer.

The Buccaneers' offense is led by MVP candidate Tom Brady, who paced the NFL in 2021 with 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes, culminating in a 102.1 passer rating. The Eagles' pass defense, led by cornerback Darius Slay (team-high three interceptions), ranked 11th in the NFL in yards allowed but gave up a cumulative 95.4 passer rating that ranked 23rd, as well as 28 touchdown passes.

The Eagles have an experience-laden secondary with Slay, fellow cornerback Steven Nelson and safeties Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod. But before this can become a battle of Brady against that secondary the big men up front will settle whether or not the quarterback has time to throw. The Bucs have the sizeable advantage of an offensive line that features three Pro Bowlers (LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jensen and RT Tristan Wirfs), a group that allowed the fewest overall sacks (23) despite throwing by far the most passes (731). Obviously, that leads to the league's top sacks-allowed-per-pass-play figure, at 3.15%. No other team was even under 4.00%.

The Eagles will attack that brick wall with such sledge hammers as defensive tackles Javon Hargrave (7.5 sacks) and Fletcher Cox (3.5) plus ends Josh Sweat (7.5) and Derek Barnett (2.0). On paper, this may look like a huge advantage for the Buccaneers because the Eagles' sack rate of 4.92% is the second-lowest in the league, but that does not accurately portray Philly's ability to get pressure on the passer. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Eagles have 193 QB pressures this season - about 11 per game - and a QB pressure rate of 31.2% that ranks third in the entire NFL. Thanks to those four linemen noted above, the Eagles are the only the team in the league in 2021 that had four players record 40 or more pressures in 2021.

It's also important to note how the Buccaneers offense and Eagles defense arrived at those strong protection/pressure numbers. As good as Tampa Bay's offensive line is, the stellar protection they provided was helped by how quickly Brady got rid of the football this season. His average time from snap to throw this season was 2.50 second, the second-fastest for any qualifying quarterback in the league. That's one reason why blitzing him hasn't worked at all - only 1.7% of the blitzes Brady faced this year resulted in a sack.

Ah, but that is not particularly a problem for the Eagles, who get almost all of their pressure without blitzing. In fact, Philly has blitzed on the third-lowest percentage of opponent drop-backs this season and yet still, as noted above, is among the league leaders in getting pressure on the quarterback. This will obviously help the Eagles play the sort of coverage that has forced Brady and company to (rather successfully) adjust this season by playing two safeties over the top and flooding the field with coverage men. With Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown out of the picture and Cyril Grayson now dealing with a hamstring injury, the Eagles may choose to pay extra attention to Mike Evans in order to take away the team's biggest threat at receiver. The Eagles held Evans to just two catches for 27 yards in Week Six.

The Buccaneers did not have Rob Gronkowski for that October matchup in Philadelphia, and that could make a huge difference in the postseason rematch. Gronkowski has barreled into the playoffs with a full head of steam, coming off the first back-to-back 100 yard games by a tight end in Buccaneers history. It's worth noting that even without 'Gronk' in that previous matchup, Tampa Bay tight ends O.J. Howard and Cam Brate combined for nine catches, 75 yards and a touchdown. As good as the Eagles' defense has been, the middle level of linebackers Genard Avery, T.J. Edwards and Alex Singletary is far less experienced than the front line or the secondary. The Eagles released veteran Eric Wilson at midseason, and the trio above had combined for a total of 32 NFL starts before this season. The Buccaneers could seek to find mismatches between their tight ends and those linebackers.

Tampa Bay's ground game (and short-passing game) should get a boost from the expected return of Leonard Fournette from injured reserve. Fournette was on a tear before suffering a hamstring injury in a Week 15 game against the Saints, averaging 104.2 yards from scrimmage per game over the previous five outings and scoring six touchdowns in that span. The Eagles are well aware of the threat Fournette poses, as he stung them for 81 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and six catches for 46 yards in Week Six. The Eagles' run defense ranks ninth in the league, however, and is allowing just 4.0 yards per carry, the sixth-lowest figure in the NFL. That star-studded defensive front mentioned earlier is the main reason why.

Throw out the meaningless Week 18 game and it's clear that the Eagles defense was in a groove coming down the stretch, albeit against such low-wattage offensive opponents as the Broncos, the Giants (twice), the Football Team (twice) and the Jets. The Eagles are also quite healthy on that side of the ball, having recently returned 11 players from the COVID list and long since adjusted to the early-season loss of defensive end Brandon Graham. The Buccaneers' offense can't boast the same level of health (and it's hard to complain after last season's good fortune), and is still learning how to go forward without Godwin, their do-everything chess piece. But Brady and company are finding news to get it done and will try to do so again when the Eagles come to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

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