Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the Philadelphia Eagles. Here’s what you should know:
BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT
Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in many types of offenses in his career. From operating on a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to being the quarterback of a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and orchestrating an attack that revolved around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.
For 20 years the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed last year to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has adjusted to head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 44, has shown little signs of slowing down – in 2020 he accumulated 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007, and led the Bucs to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
2021 has been more of the same for Brady as he paces the NFL in passing attempts, completions (where he set a new single-season record), passing yards and passing touchdowns. He still has zip and velocity in his throws and is exceptional on intermediate throws.
Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive, but it seemed as if they had potential to do more damage in the NFL than they had shown with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Evans responded with a career-high 13 touchdowns last year and has double-digit scores this year, while Godwin was on pace to tie his career-bests in receptions and touchdowns despite playing in only 12 games in 2020. Godwin set a career-high in catches in 2021 with 98.
Evans and Godwin are used in multiple ways by Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, but especially in three-by-one trips formations (with Evans the backside receiver) and in bunch with Godwin as the point man. Tampa likes to use these to defeat split-safety zone coverage – which the Eagles employ on many of their defensive snaps – along with high-low pass concepts out of play-action and will also attack the void in between those split safeties with Godwin on a vertical route down the seam and a combination of shorter routes to attract the middle defenders and deep pass patterns on the outside to widen the other safety. They also like play-action out of the shotgun in the red zone to influence linebackers’ run-pass keys, but Godwin won’t be able to execute these concepts in this year’s playoffs after suffering a major knee injury.
Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense besides deep threats Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard were a pair of veteran imports in 2020 – Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Brown, the enigmatic former All-Pro, is still as dangerous of a route-runner as ever when playing (he has missed time this season due to injury and suspensions) but was released after a disagreement over an ankle injury, leading to more playing time for Cyril Grayson Jr. and Tyler Johnson.
Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can execute almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries, forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots, but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns and has been his usual productive self this year when healthy.
The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Leonard Fournette has enjoyed a career rebirth in the Bay while showing off his power and improved receiving skills. He is backed up by Ronald Jones, who had a career-high 1,143 yards from scrimmage in 2020, former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell and ex-Bengal Giovani Bernard. They run behind an underrated offensive line composed of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs.
Tampa Bay’s offense led the league in passing and finished second in total yards and scoring with 511 points.
TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX
Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.
Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Vita Vea and Steve McClendon are the team’s main defensive linemen. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football (David is the better of the two in pass coverage though).
Beyond promising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell – leave a bit to be desired, hence Arians and general manager Jason Licht signing veteran Pierre Desir and 33-year-old five-time All-Pro Richard Sherman, whose leadership, intelligence, length and ability to excel in press coverage has made him the prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years. But Sherman was recently placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
While the Bucs were the best defense in the league against the run and fourth in sacks in 2020, they were just 21st against the pass. It’s been more of the same this year as they were third in rushing yards allowed and seventh in sacks but 21st against the pass again.
EAGLES WILL RUN, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE
After Doug Pederson brought a Super Bowl championship to Philadelphia in 2017, things began to sour rather quickly in the City of Brotherly Love. Following a deterioration of talent thanks to age, free agency and the salary cap, general manager Howie Roseman let go of Pederson and hired his replacement in former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirriani.
Sirriani, who worked for Pederson’s Super Bowl-winning play caller in Frank Reich, has brought a similar system to the Eagles. Pederson offense’s – a chip off the old block from his mentor, former Eagles coach Andy Reid – is a West Coast offense-style unit that is built off misdirection concepts, quick underneath throws and occasional downfield route combinations. While Sirriani does subscribe to those approaches, he has put his own twist on them by getting the ball to his running backs often in both the passing and running game.
Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell have been the biggest beneficiaries of this approach, as they combined for 84 catches in 2021 and led the NFL in rushing. In fact, the Eagles’ ground game has been so successful that that they’ve accumulated at least 175 rushing yards in seven straight games – tying the NFL record set by the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Helping them in that department has been second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts, a product of Oklahoma, has utilized his mobility on several types of read option plays with zone, power and counter concepts built into them and has capitalized by rushing for 10 touchdowns, which broke Donovan McNabb’s franchise single season record by a quarterback. He also has a strong arm, but his accuracy and experience in identifying coverages is a work in progress.
Like Hurts, his pass targets – save for fourth-year tight end Dallas Goedert – are also quite young but have shown potential. DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins are all in either their first or second seasons in the NFL and combined for 140 receptions and eight scores this season.
Blocking for Hurts and his cohorts are former All-Pros Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson, Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson and Nate Herbig (who has filled in while starting guard Brandon Brooks has battled injuries).
PHILLY DEFENSE HAS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
New defensive play-caller Jonathan Gannon, who directed the Colts’ cornerbacks for three years, is mostly a fan of zone coverage – particularly Cover Three and Four. So far the results have been mixed, with Philadelphia ending 2021 11th against the pass and ninth against the run, but were just 20th in interceptions and second-last in sacks. Needless to say, Gannon needs more big plays from his charges.
To have success this way, you need to get pressure from a defensive line that is deep and talented. Which the Eagles have in former All-Pro Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham (who is out with an Achilles injury), Derek Barnett, Javon Hargrave, Ryan Kerrigan and Josh Sweat, but this unit has underachieved in 2021. Perhaps because of Graham’s injury, teams may have been sliding their protection towards Cox more often and taking their chances with the others.
Safety Rodney McLeod, one of the game’s rangiest centerfielders, hold down the back end along with Anthony Harris. Cornerback Darius Slay is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, and he and veterans Steven Nelson and Avonte Maddox are a solid trio. T.J. Edwards, Alex Singleton and Genard Avery are Philadelphia’s linebackers.