Tampa Bay Buccaneers This weekend’s Wildcard matchup pits the top-ranked regular season rushing attack against the third-ranked rushing defense. Carmen Vitali
The Buccaneers will face an Eagles team that they've technically faced before this season - though a lot has changed since Week Six and players and coaches will be the first ones to tell you that.
"Just formationally and schematically they've done quite a few things a little different than the last week that we played them. It's been a long time [since then] - its like a tale of two seasons. We're different and they're different, so it will be like playing each other for the first time since a lot of things are different on both ends."
Before the regular season was over, Philadelphia leap-frogged into the top spot in rushing offense, averaging 159.7 yards per game this season. They averaged 4.6 expected yards per carry as of Week 18, which is the second-most in the NFL according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And despite that, they still managed to outgain expectations, doing so on 40.1% of attempts, which is also the second-highest in the NFL.
A lot of that is easily attributed to a veteran offensive line that perhaps doesn't get as much credit as it deserves. They've managed to open up run lanes for the players behind them to allow for that type of performance. But what's even more impressive? The Eagles leading rusher is none other than quarterback Jalen Hurts himself.
It's because this Philly offense knows exactly what to do with him. Hurts leads all quarterbacks in yards, touchdowns, rushing yards over expected and EPA on designed runs this season, says NGS. And those kinds of plays are worked in a lot. The Eagles call a run play or play action on two-thirds of their plays this season, which is the highest rate in the NFL. That works for Hurts, too. He has a 103.4 passer rating when utilizing play action versus 79.9 when not.
Play action is often used to try and mitigate incoming pressure, which Hurts has faced a lot of this season. He has been pressured on 31.9% of his dropbacks, which ranks in the top 10. In those situations, Hurts has 13.6 air yards per attempt, which ranks third BUT his completion rate suffers. He has just a 44.2% completion rate when facing pressure, according to NGS. That ranks 24th in the league.
When Hurts does elect to throw it, he can do it in a number of ways. Though he's nursing an ankle injury, this season he has the second-most scramble yards per dropback with an average of 7.1 yards traveled. That helps him escape that aforementioned pressure in the process, evading it on 21.0% of his pressured dropbacks this season which is the fifth-highest in the NFL, per NGS. That means he's throwing on the run at a rate of 21% of attempts, which is the highest rate in the league. But that's not the worst thing in the world - again his completion rate suffers. He has just a 47.8% completion rate when throwing on the run, which ranks 25th in the league.
Those numbers are a bit inflated due to the fact that he's clearly forced into scrambling quite a bit.
Therein lies an opportunity for the Buccaneer defense: get pressure on Hurts. It will force him into a decision at the line either way. Either he elects to hand the ball off to a running back, in which you think your third-ranked rushing defense can hold up to the challenge, or he tries to throw on the run, which favors the defense there, too. Even on quick passes of under 2.5 seconds, Hurts struggles. He has just a 72.7% completion percentage on quick throws, which ranks 22nd in the league and gets just 5.5 yards per attempt, which ranks 30th. Consequently, he doesn't attempt those often. Just 37% of his pass attempts are quick throws, which also ranks 30th. Now, Hurts could also take the ball himself - and that's the main thing the Bucs will have to be weary of. They'll have to account for him as a runner on most plays, even if it's not one of those designed runs mentioned earlier.
You also have an opportunity for more coverage sacks with Hurts and let me explain why. Hurts is holding onto the ball more than any other quarterback in the league. He's the only signal caller with a time to throw of over three seconds since 2020, per NGS. So, if your secondary can clamp down on Hurts' receivers, you're going to give your guys up front a good chance to bring him down - as long as they can contain him at the same time. Keep him in the pocket, in other words. When he gets out of it, he's sacked on just 16% of his extended dropbacks this season, which is the lowest rate in the NFL, due to his mobility of course.
Oh, and don't let him get into any kind of rhythm, either. He has a 13.0 yard average on rhythm attempts, which leads the NFL.
More advice for the secondary? Pay special attention to the outside because Hurts avoids the middle of the field like the plague. Just 4% of his throws come between the hashes. He has the highest rate outside the numbers at 52% since 2020, per NGS. It's curious because he actually has success on in-breaking routes. His 0.38 pass EPA per attempt ranks eighth in league despite the fact that he throws in-breakers at the lowest rate in the league at 25%, per NGS.
A lot has been made of this Philadelphia defensive front - and rightfully so - but the same goes for the Bucs' defensive front, especially against the run. And it starts with nose tackle Vita Vea. Consider that when he is on the field, opponents get just a half a yard before contact on each carry. When he's off the field? They get 1.5 yards before contact, according to NGS.
Then, of course, it's up to the Bucs' defense to finish the job and tackle upon contact.
We've talked a lot about Hurts but of course, the Eagles have other offensive weapons, even if they go through Hurts in the process. Running back Miles Sanders was finding a lot of success before sitting out the final two weeks of the season. In two of the last three games he played, Sanders went over 100 yards on the ground. In three of the last four games he played, his yards per carry average was 6.4 yards or higher.
Don't let him get outside the tackles, either. He has a 6.8 yards per carry average on runs outside, which ranks third among all players with a minimum of 50 such rushes, and just behind his quarterback, who has a 6.9 yard per carry average outside the tackles. That's a weak spot for the Buccaneers, who dominate in the middle likely due to guys like Vea I mentioned earlier. On runs inside the tackles, the Bucs rank first in defense. On runs outside them? They rank 30th. This is where getting guys like Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul back will be crucial.
Additionally, wide receiver DeVonta Smith has accounted for 38.6% of the Eagles' air yards this season and over 37% of his air yards come from Go routes, to be specific. Philadelphia also has a tendency to go to him on the outside when it counts, given of course that Hurts throws there so much. He's tied with both Seattle's D.K. Metcalf and Cincinnati's JaMarr Chase with three touchdowns on boundary targets within two yards of the sideline.
So, what do you do? You press. Smith has been pressed on 33% of detached routes this season, which is the ninth-highest rate in the NFL, because he's averaging just 1.1 yards per slot or wide route he runs when pressed, according to NGS. That's good news for a guy like Carlton Davis, who loves to play aggressive, tight coverage. If he's lined up on Smith - let him.
Overall, this is going to come down to stopping the run and forcing Hurts into making plays himself. Force him to throw as much as possible. The Eagles completely overhauled their offense at the midpoint in the season to play to their strengths, which is a credit to the offensive coaching staff and Head Coach Nick Sirianni. Weeks 1-7, 38.5% of the Eagles' offensive plays were runs. Week Eight and later? That number jumped up to 58.6%. They rank first in first-down run rate in that span as well as overall run rate.
"I think as a group, they've gotten together," said Bowles. "I think Shane [Steichen] and Nick [Sirianni] have done a great job of expanding the offense and running the football - getting that done and getting deep-ball plays, as well. They do a heck of a job with their scheme, and they've kind of been beating everybody up. Jalen kind of drives the offense. You can see the maturity, you can see the control of the offense and I think he has done a hell of a job."
Say it with me again: Stop. The. Run.