The Philadelphia Eagles are set to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round this Sunday. The Eagles have one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks, but they’ll be facing a team that is among the league’s best in defending the run. The question Philadelphia may be forced to answer on Sunday is whether they can ride Jalen Hurts’ arm—and not their running backs—to a win. Looking at the Eagles’ season leading up to this point, signs point to a struggle for them in Tampa Bay. Early on, Nick Sirianni’s squad was relying on Hurts more than their run game as they struggled to find an offensive identity. In the first seven weeks of the season, the quarterback was averaging nearly 35 pass attempts per game. At the same time, Philadelphia’s running backs were putting up solid numbers when they got carries, but those instances were few and far between with so many passing plays. The win/loss results weren’t pretty. After those first seven games of 2021, the Eagles were 2-5, including a loss to the Buccaneers. It was Hurts’ worst start of the season to that point: just 115 yards, a touchdown, and a pick on 12-of-26 passing (46 percent completion rate). Since that early October matchup, both teams have evolved. Philadelphia shifted entirely to the opposite extreme of offense. They became a very run-heavy team and immediately found success with their stacked backfield. In their Week 8 game against the Detroit Lions, Hurts threw just 14 times, and Philadelphia collectively ran 46 times for 236 yards. They won 44-6. By the end of the regular season, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing yards and were among the top four teams in yards per carry. They finished the season 9-8 and secured the NFC’s seventh seed. Around the same time as the Eagles’ switch, the Buccaneers’ running defense began to slip. Since Week 7, when they led the NFL with the fewest allowed rush yards, Tampa Bay is just 15th-best in preventing the run. They still remained in the league’s top three in stopping opponents’ rushing attacks by the end of the season, though. The Buccaneers’ slip can be attributed in part to the injury bug that hit them late in the season: Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, and Lavonte David all missed multiple games with injuries. But now, Pierre-Paul and Barrett will be back in time for Sunday’s game, and David has been cleared to return from the injured reserve as well. That brings us to the big wild-card matchup. It’s not hard to predict what the Eagles’ offensive game plan is, and what the Buccaneers will be planning for on defense as a result. Philadelphia is going to try to run the ball down Tampa’s throat. If their defense manages to stop that rush attack, or if the Eagles face a quick or late scoring deficit, what then? Hurts’ ability as a passer might be the real make-or-break factor in this game. The good news for Hurts and the Eagles is that he can thrive as a passer in this offense. His numbers improved this season when Philadelphia used Hurts’ arm as a complement to their rushing attack. Establishing the run game early also sets up play-action passing as an option, and when Hurts gets that extra time to throw, he’s very successful. The Eagles have also implemented RPOs in their offensive schemes, making them even harder to defend. Additionally, Hurts adds another dimension to the passing game with his legs. He can work with a moving pocket or scramble out of it while keeping his eyes downfield and completing throws. The Eagles’ biggest concern is that Hurts didn’t have as much success when they didn’t build off of the run game. We saw that in the first seven games of the season when Philadelphia relied nearly exclusively on Hurts for offensive production. He was less accurate and forced to scramble more often in the first half of the regular season. Then the key for Philadelphia will be reinforcing Hurts’ confidence by establishing a run game and allowing him to build off of that with play-action. If they’re unable to get the run game going at all against a strong rushing defense, their quarterback will struggle. Considering the Eagles’ lack of success when they were a pass-first offense, that could spell doom in their return to the playoffs.
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