By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor
For much of the year, the Buccaneers offense was humming.
Of course, it's easy to do that when your offense has three of the top ten, perhaps five, receivers in the league along with three good tight ends and a running back room filled with household names.
That's changed a bit over the end of this season, as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense have struggled to keep up with the Jets and Saints over final four weeks of the season.
The team is now without Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette, putting more pressure on the backup running backs and Tom Brady to make plays to keep the offense moving down the field.
Of course, that was not the case when the Eagles and Bucs met in week six.
The Eagles defense at that time got torched in the first half, giving up 21 points. But after halftime they clamped down and there has been some real improvement since then.
In that game, Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay followed Mike Evans and held him to just two catches for 27 yards and that will need to continue in this game for the Eagles to have a real shot.
The Buccaneers will be without the two players who did the most damage that day: Antonio Brown (97 yards, touchdown receiving) and Leonard Fournette (81 rush yards, 46 receiving yards, two touchdowns). They will be replaced by Le'Veon Bell and probably Breshad Perriman due to other injuries to the depth players at the wideout position. It's no secret that neither of those options is as good as the guys they are replacing, so that should benefit the Eagles.
Tyler Johnson will also see the field quite a bit, and the defense cannot sleep on him as he is a far better player than he gets credit for having ridden the bench behind the aforementioned top three receivers that Tampa Bay has had.
Meanwhile, the Eagles linebacker room, which at the time of this week 6 match-up was still hoping Eric Wilson would do something productive, has taken great strides, particularly with TJ Edwards having stepped up.
Avonte Maddox also played like a man possesed in that game with great coverage and coming up frequently to stop the run.
With those two only improving, the run game should be able to be limited more than it was in October.
The issue then, becomes tight ends. The Birds have struggled against this position much of the season, particularly backups. While the Bucs didn't have Rob Gronkowski in their week 6 game, OJ Howard burned the defense for 49 yards and a touchdown on six receptions while Brate had three receptions for 26 yards. With Gronk back, Brate figures to play as the second and Howard as the third tight end.
While the Eagles have had some success at limiting starters at the position, this is perhaps the tight end room with the greatest depth at this point, so someone will need to step up and make sure these guys get covered or else Brady will continue to throw easy, short passes up and down the field the entire game.
So, the Eagles really just need to have many of their guys play the way that they have shown they can. That puts the game on the defensive side down, most likely, to the safeties and linebackers who are most likely to draw this coverage at times throughout the game. It also makes the final aspect of the game that much more critical: the Eagles front needs to get pressures.
Brady is used to having a clean pocket and is one of the most well-protected QBs in the league. Fletcher Cox, Josh Sweat, and Derek Barnett had hits on him in their week six match-up. The only other player who got into the backfield quite a bit was Avonte Maddox. The Eagles will need these guys to step it up and have some recent breakout players like Milton Williams and TJ Edwards step in to help push that rush over the edge and make Brady uncomfortable.
Despite the Buccaneers offense being the top passing offense this season, the Eagles lost to them by one score after a brutal first-half defense and a horrid offense. Changes in the personnel on both sides since then almost universally benefits the Eagles defense in the re-match, so if this unit can come out like they did in the second-half of that week six game, they should put this team in a position for another playoff win over Brady.