Buccaneers vs. Eagles, Week 14: 10 Keys to the Game for Philadelphia
In the present, it's a matchup featuring one of the most disappointing teams that the NFL has seen in decades facing an inconsistent and enigmatic group that could blossom into an emerging contender or collapse into a laughingstock on a down-by-down basis.
Hint: the Eagles are that disappointing team. Just so we're clear.
Philadelphia is not so much the nerdy kid on the NFL playground who gets beat up by all the bigger kids on the jungle gym. They are actually the kid goofing off in the back of the classroom while all the teachers shake their heads and wonder aloud why he doesn't just apply himself—I mean, he could be so good.
But no matter what anyone says, he is just going to continue failing each test because, hey, school is stupid, right?
Alright, so the metaphor has gone far enough. I think you get the point.
Still, the Eagles are very capable of beating the Bucs. The question is whether or not they're truly interested in actually doing what it will take to make that happen.
Should they decide they are, here are 10 key things that they must address this Sunday in order to avoid failing a ninth straight test.
Allow Nick Foles to Get Comfortable
The running game and short passing game are vital for a rookie quarterback. If both are ineffective, that rookie is going to panic and start making game-changing mistakes.
Therefore, it is extremely important that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg not treat him like he's Brett Favre. Slants, hitches, comebacks, ins, outs, drags, digs, etc. should be Foles' best friend to start this game. Once he starts hitting a few of those, then they should open up the playbook and start seeing what kind of arm the kid has.
But if Marty wants to come out throwing the ball down the field like he's still working with Donovan McNabb then his gameplan is going to fall apart very quickly.
Any less than 10 targets for Brent Celek and an equal number of screen passes to the running backs should be considered a failed gameplan.
Control Gerald McCoy at All Costs
The single most disruptive force on Tampa Bay's defense is tackle Gerald McCoy. The former first-round pick has taken some time to develop but is certainly living up to his draft status now.
On a defensive line decimated by injuries, McCoy still finds a way to stand out. For the most part, the Buccaneers defense really is not very good from a talent standpoint. But McCoy still finds a way to be incredibly productive and he elevates the entire unit with his play.
If the Bucs are smart, they will line McCoy up in the gap between Eagles' offensive lineman Dallas Reynolds and Jake Scott in an attempt to take advantage of a duo that can't possibly be communicating very effectively quite yet. Evan Mathis is playing very well as of late, but unfortunately, it's impossible to move him before every snap to ensure that he's matched up with McCoy.
This is where I believe fullback Stanley Havili needs to make his money. Instead of keeping the running back in to block, the Eagles should sacrifice a receiver on the field and use a two-back set all game long, with Havili keeping an eye on McCoy.
It might eat at Marty to keep a receiver off the field, but having an extra receiver doesn't really help if Foles has pressure in his face and the running backs have no lanes.
Run the Ball Early and Often
You've seen and heard the stats repeatedly, so I won't throw those at you again, but it's safe to say that Bryce Brown has been on an absolute tear and has the entire NFL taking notice.
Unfortunately, for all the good times he's brought so far, it's the few bad moments that have cost the team dearly.
Brown is laying the ball on the ground far too often, but that's correctable. Until this season, the guy hadn't started a game since high school, so I think it's fair to say that his form might not be perfected quite yet.
The best way for a running back to learn is through repetition. Pound "high and tight" into his head during the week, then set him free on Sunday and hope it sticks. Eventually, it will, but with a guy as raw as Brown, there will be some obvious growing pains and the Eagles are seeing that right now.
Fumbles aside, Brown is carrying the team right now. Marty Mornhinweg must allow him to do that once again by giving him no less than 20 carries and allowing him to establish himself on the ground.
The Bucs have the No. 1 ranked run defense in the league this season, but that doesn't mean that the Eagles should run less. Once Brown gets winded, Dion Lewis and Chris Polk should also get a chance to carry the ball—especially Polk, who, like Brown, is raw but has incredible ability.
Tampa Bay has a dreadful pass defense, so it would be just like Marty to come out and try that ridiculous play-action fake, roll-out and bomb to the middle of the field that worked once against the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. I'm sure it gets Marty all giddy just to see it on his play-sheet.
But that's just the opposite of what the Eagles need this week—and every week, as a matter of fact.
Get Jeremy Maclin Involved Early
After his rookie year, I predicted that Jeremy Maclin would overtake DeSean Jackson as the team's No. 1 target. The play of both led me to believe that Maclin was the more complete receiver and the guy with enough talent to be a team's primary target.
Instead, the regression of Maclin has been dumbfounding.
Several times this season Maclin has completely disappeared, to the point where I have genuinely had to ask myself in the middle of the game if Maclin was injured and I forgot or missed it somehow.
By all accounts, he's been pretty healthy for most of this season. But for whatever reason, he can't get open and hasn't stepped up when the team needed him to.
Instead of becoming the No. 1 target, he's fallen behind Jackson and Brent Celek as the most reliable pass-catcher on the team.
Part of the problem could be a lack of involvement. It could be a mental thing with Maclin, where he's shutting down if he's not involved early on. To combat that, I would design plays for him in the first scripted 15.
The Eagles should do this with bubble screens and end arounds, making him the first read—anything to get the ball in his hands from the start. It will likely benefit him and the team later on.
Continued Improvement from the Offensive Line
It's not difficult to improve when you've hit rock bottom, but that's no reason to discount the steady improvement that the offensive line has been making over the past few weeks.
When King Dunlap isn't slacking, he's a serviceable tackle. Also, Evan Mathis is playing the best football of his career right now, and I say that as someone who has bashed the man constantly in the past.
Dallas Reynolds has improved not only physically with his technique but the line calls that he is making are getting much better. He seems to be on the same page with the other four guys and they're responding well to what he's doing.
Jake Scott is playing better than I think anyone expected. There have been some bumps that were to be expected when a guy comes in off the street during the season, but more than once, I've found myself scratching my head and wondering how this guy didn't have a job all the way into November.
Last but not least, rookie Dennis Kelly is growing, week by week. As a guard, Kelly was an absolute and total disaster. I'm not sure that statement is going to ruffle too many feathers. But that's fine because tackle is his natural position and he's giving the team some good tape for the future.
With all the praise out of the way, these five still have a ways to go before they can be considered a good offensive line, but they're making progress, and that will have to continue if the losing streak is going to end with Tampa Bay.
Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen Must Play Within the Scheme
To say Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen have been disappointing would be a hilarious understatement. The majority of the broken plays allowed by the defense this season can be attributed to one or both of them freelancing rather than doing their jobs.
Tampa Bay's stellar wide receiving pair, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, are obviously dangerous weapons. When the play calls for Coleman and/or Allen to protect against the deep ball, they must do exactly that. If they're caught looking in the backfield and get out of position, Jackson and Williams will put up career numbers.
Also not to be overlooked is their tight end Dallas Clark. While his best days are clearly behind him, he can still be quite dangerous. If either safety is tasked with covering Clark in man-to-man coverage, biting on a run-fake or playing lazy will be disastrous.
Both safeties are much more talented than their play would suggest. It seems as though a lack of discipline has been their main issue this season, and it has likely cost the team some games.
Defensive Line Must Rattle Josh Freeman
It gets old saying this every week, but the Eagles' front four really needs to pick it up and start doing their part.
Jim Washburn is out as the defensive line coach after being fired on Monday, and the Wide 9 goes with him, so there will be a bit of a transition period for the linemen when they face the Bucs. But it's a transition from a gimmick to a more conventional style of play, so it shouldn't take them too long to get into the swing of things.
Brandon Graham and Trent Cole are especially on notice here. Both did a pretty decent job getting to Tony Romo last week, but they must get to Freeman more consistently this Sunday.
Not only that, but they must bring him down.
Freeman is a bigger guy and tackling him could prove to be a real challenge, but the Eagles will have to find a way to put him on the ground several times.
Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins must also do their part by collapsing the pocket and limiting Freeman's escape routes. Freeman certainly isn't Robert Griffin or Cam Newton, but he's also not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, either.
Get Creative with the Blitz
If Freeman still has a weakness, it's reading a defense. Whether that comes in the form of a complicated blitz or just an elaborate coverage scheme, Freeman has shown a delay in anticipating what a defense will do when he gets an exotic look.
Yet just blitzing Freeman isn't enough. Even with a free man coming, Freeman is able to keep his eyes down the field and he has the arm strength to make any throw with his feet firmly planted in the ground.
Simply having guys around him is not enough to rattle him on its own, but when you combine that with a few exotic looks, Freeman is going to have a lot of trouble.
The challenge for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will be to throw something at Freeman that will confuse him, but one that won't also confuse his own defense in the process.
Don't Allow Doug Martin to Get into a Rhythm
When Doug Martin runs the ball, the first man must bring him down.
Of course, that's easier said than done, but if Martin is allowed to break a few tackles and hit a few seams, his confidence is going to skyrocket and there will be no stopping him. But he is still a rookie and is susceptible to getting shaken, and there is no better way to do that than by limiting his effectiveness from the start.
Tackling has been an issue for the Eagles' defense all year, with the exception of DeMeco Ryans, who flat out does not miss tackles. But without that same type of effectiveness from the rest of the defense, I fear that Martin could hit his stride and really start embarrassing the Eagles' defense.
A lot of tackling comes from pure desire, and it's something that the Birds are clearly lacking.
That must change on Sunday.
Make Some Plays on Special Teams
As it stands, there are two guys making plays on special teams right now: Alex Henery and Colt Anderson.
Damaris Johnson can boast a 98-yard punt return, but there's even something inherently wrong with that. No one should ever have the opportunity to return a punt that far because fielding the ball on the two-yard line is ludicrous—so even a good play can be marred by a lack of awareness and football IQ.
But for Henery and Anderson, special teams is their playground. Henery refuses to miss a field goal—although even he chipped in the mess by missing an extra point—and Anderson makes roughly 100 percent of the special teams tackles.
Someone else is going to have to chip in at some point, and hopefully it starts against the Bucs.
Johnson is trying to make his name on punt returns, but he is receiving very little blocking. The same can be said of Brandon Boykin on kick returns. It doesn't matter how athletic the return man is if he has no blocking.
On the coverage units, someone other than Anderson needs to make a stop. Then after contributing with a tackle, they need to force a fumble. Any type of impact play, even a big hit, would be a welcomed change of pace for a unit that has been mediocre on its best day.