TOP STORYLINES from the Brady Bunch:
What Will Come to Pass? – When the Buccaneers’ passing attack gets into a groove and starts making the most out of all of its extreme pass-catching weapons, it can seem almost impossible to stop. That theory will be put to the test on Thursday night, however. Tampa Bay will bring the NFL’s top-ranked passing attack into Philadelphia to kick off Week Six with a matchup against the league’s third-ranked pass defense. The Buccaneers are averaging 349.4 net passing yards a game, which if maintained would break the Denver Broncos’ all-time record of 340.3 per game in 2013. Tom Brady leads the league in passing yards and is second in touchdown passes and he just set a franchise record by extending his streak of passes without an interception to 203. His three top receivers – Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown – are all on pace to surpass 1,000 yards this season, and with all three of them on the field it’s a no-win proposition for a defense trying to decide which one to give extra coverage. All of that said, the Eagles are only allowing 194.8 passing yards per game (third) and 6.16 yards per pass play (fourth). And they have come across those rankings honestly, having already faced Kansas City, Dallas, Carolina and Atlanta, all teams that rank among the top 14 in the league in passing yards. Darius Slay is a heady playmaker who already has two interceptions this season and the Eagles don’t stress their secondary with a high amount of blitzes. With Javon Hargrave and his six sacks -most among NFL interior linemen – leading a fierce front four, the Eagles have only blitzed on 14.6% of their defensive snaps, the lowest mark in the league. And yet they still rank third in the NFL with a pressure rate of 34.3%.
Hurts to Think About It – As noted above, the Buccaneers face a different sort of quarterback challenge this week. In their last two wins, the Bucs have gone up against one relatively immobile rookie in New England’s Mac Jones, and a Dolphins quarterback in Jacoby Brissett who spent much of the game gritting through a hamstring injury. Their opponents in Weeks One-Three were all essentially pocket passers – Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford. Now they’ll take their shot at Philly’s Jalen Hurts, who is one of the better running quarterbacks in the league. Kevin Minter, who will likely be filling in for the injured Lavonte David this week, said the Buccaneers have to prepare for expected RPOs and zone-reads, which they have seen very little of so far this season. Defensive lineman Vita Vea, whose Washington Huskies lost to a Hurts-led Alabama squad in the 2016 Peach Bowl, remembers how a quarterback of that variety can cause significant problems. “Any time you face a mobile quarterback it places a threat against you because you know he can extend plays with his feet. I played against him in college and he hurt us a lot with his mobility and his arm, so it will be a tough challenge this week going against a guy like Jalen Hurts that is really mobile and who also can throw the ball.” Hurts not only leads the Eagles in rushing, as mentioned earlier, and is second in rushes with 43, but he has also accounted for three of Philadelphia’s five rushing touchdowns so far. Hurts is an explosive runner; according to NFL Next Gen Stats after Week Three of this season, he had reached 15+ miles per hour on 62.5% of his career runs, and twice this season he’s maxed out above 20 miles per hour. The Buccaneers have the NFL’s best run defense for the third year in a row but Hurts could render their extra-strong interior moot if he can effectively get around the edge multiple times.
Missing in the Middle – Perhaps the most concerning name on the Buccaneers’ Week Six injury report is Tom Brady, who hurt the thumb on his throwing hand early in Sunday’s win over Miami but was able to play through it. Barring a setback, though, it would be surprising if Brady is unable to go in Philadelphia. On the other hand, the Buccaneers appear to be preparing for the absence of linebacker Lavonte David, the team’s long-running captain who suffered an ankle injury in the same game. Veteran Kevin Minter is an able backup who has proved himself time and time again in such situations, but there is little doubt that a defense already hit hard by injuries will miss David for however long he is sidelined. This is just the latest defensive injury the Bucs have had to work around – and they are not alone in such troubles as several teams around the league have recently been stung by a rash of injuries – and at some point the combined stress could start to cause some cracks. Tampa Bay played last Sunday’s game with 75% of their starting secondary out of commission and don’t expect to get cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting back on the field anytime soon. Safety Antoine Winfield might be able to make it back from a concussion that kept him out of the Miami game, though the short week doesn’t help. With the Buccaneers trying to integrate such newcomers as Richard Sherman and Pierre Desir into the defense, it helps to have veteran communicators who can keep everyone on the same page. David obviously fits that ball and will be missed for that reason, beyond just the production he steadily provides.
Midseason Lenny – Leonard Fournette’s star turn in the postseason last year earned him the nickname of “Playoff Lenny,” which further morphed into “Lombardi Lenny” when he played a big role in the Super Bowl LV victory. It doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well, but perhaps Fournette should know get the moniker, “Midseason Run Game Resuscitating Lenny.” The Buccaneers had little success on the ground in their first three games but still won two of them thanks to their often unstoppable passing attack. However, over the last two weeks the team has started to find some of the offensive balance that Bruce Arians clearly wants. Not only did Fournette run for 91 yards in New England and another 67 on Sunday against the Dolphins, but his high success rate of four-plus-yard carriers has added bite to the Bucs’ play-action game, which they used to great effect this past Sunday. Fournette has clearly taken over the lead role in the backfield, even with Ronald Jones doing good things with his more limited touches, and that’s in part because he’s been getting better and better as a weapon in the passing attack. His last two yards-from scrimmage totals against the Patriots and Dolphins: 138 and 110. Of course, Arians wants some of the credit to be shared with the men paving the way. “I think the blocking unit has been doing a very, very good job. You’re not going to run the ball if your tight ends aren’t blocking. They did a heck of a job. Josh Wells comes in and plays tight end for us some, and that’s big. Again, it’s just the backs finding the holes – the holes are there. We actually left some runs out there [against Miami’ that could’ve been bigger. But yeah, the running game is where it all starts for us because you have to keep them in two dimensions defensively so that they can’t just tee off on the passer.”
Quest for NFC Supremacy – The quick turnaround of a Thursday night game is tough but there is a reward on the other side. Not only will the Buccaneers enjoy something of a “mini-bye” before Week Seven, but they’ll be able to sit back and watch how the NFC playoff chase unfolds for the rest of Week Six. The conference is a bit top-heavy in the early going with five teams, including the Buccaneers, at 4-1 or better. That includes three teams widely expected to challenge for the NFC title in the Bucs, Green Bay and the L.A. Rams, and a couple of early-season surprises riding offensive juggernauts in Arizona and Dallas. With all those teams off to such good starts and not likely to fade thanks to their high-octane offenses, it will probably be a crowded race at the end and every game along the way is going to count. If the Buccaneers can get their fifth win on Thursday night, they’ll be able to relax for a bit and potentially find themselves tied for the conference’s top spot by the end of the weekend. The undefeated Cardinals appear to have the toughest challenge with a visit to Cleveland to face the talented, 3-2 Browns. But Green Bay and Dallas could get tested on the road at Chicago and New England, respectively, and even the Rams have to make the dreaded cross-country trip to face the Giants.
1. Eagles G Landon Dickerson vs. Buccaneers DL Vita Vea
Vea is the 2021 darling of every Twitter analyst crunching game tape this season. His slight stat line belies the enormous impact he is having on the Bucs’ defense, as he often clears the way for his teammates by demolishing portions of the opposing blocking front. Vea did have his first half-sack on Sunday against Miami, and while he says he does enjoy creating opportunities for the Bucs’ other rushers he is still very hungry for his first full sack of the season. Vea is the nose tackle in the Buccaneers’ base defense but his NFL Next Gen Stats pre-snap location heat chart shows him getting plenty of snaps at locations all along the interior line. (He’s had a handful of entertaining rushes off the edges, too, because Todd Bowles is a mad genius.) In three of the Bucs’ five games so far, Vea has finished with the smallest average separation from the quarterback at the time of the throw, in each of those instances finishing at 3.66 yards or less. The NFL average is 4.52 yards of separation. The Eagles drafted Dickerson 37th overall out of Alabama in April, and while they didn’t throw him right into the fire it didn’t take long for his feet to hit the coals. After right guard Brandon Brooks landed on injured reserve with a torn pec, the rookie got his first start at right guard in Week Three. Then left guard Isaac Seumalo was lost for the season in Week Three with a Lisfranc foot injury and Dickerson moved over to that spot. The Eagles have also been without tackle Jordan Mailata for three weeks with a knee injury and tackle Lane Johnson is away from the team indefinitely while dealing with a personal matter. All of this makes the versatile Dickerson a key player on that line going forward. Dickerson is very technically sound and he presents a wide target to match up with the 350-pound Vea. He’s got good hands, too, but will have to prove he’s strong enough to anchor against Vea’s deadly bull-rushes.
2. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Eagles CB Steven Nelson
The Eagles have the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense, as noted earlier, but they are not quite so highly ranked by Football Outsider’s DVOA system, where they stand 22nd. Surprisingly, the Eagles’ biggest issues have been covering the opponents’ number-one receiver. They have allowed 88.8 yards per game to whichever player for the other team has gotten that designation each week. As an example, the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill got them for 11 catches, 186 yards and three touchdowns in Week Four and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel had six catches for 93 yards in Week Two. Though the Bucs have several candidates for that number-one receiver designation, opponents still seem to treat Evans as the top threat. The Eagles are not likely to shadow Evans with their top corner, Darius Slay, as they have largely kept Slay at left corner and Nelson at right corner regardless of opponent this year. Evans lines up on both sides, of course, but has spent more time split wide to the left (119 snaps) than to the right (67 snaps). That should set up a number of battles between Evans and Nelson, who the Eagles signed in July after he was let go by the Steelers in March. Philadelphia had a clear need at cornerback after not addressing the spot early in the draft, and Nelson was the 36th-highest graded corner by Pro Football Reference in 2020. He has one interception and three passes defensed so far as an Eagle. On Thursday, he’ll have to deal with Evans, who often lines up isolated on one side of the offense while the Buccaneers employ a bunch on the other side. Over the past two seasons, Evans has scored nine touchdowns when aligned in this way, the most of any player in the NFL.
3. Eagles RBs Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell vs. Buccaneers LB Kevin Minter
Once again, Minter has some big shoes to fill, as the Buccaneers will try to keep the middle of their defense strong during the absence of Lavonte David due to an ankle injury. Minter has proved quite capable of stepping into the starting lineup before, as he did for three games in 2019 and two last year (including the playoffs). In both cases, however, he was filling in for Devin White. What the Bucs lose in David’s absence is one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers, and that could be a critical factor on Thursday night. The Eagles like to throw the ball to their running backs almost more than they like to hand it off, with Sanders and Gainwell combining for 30 catches, or an average of six per game. The Bucs’ defense had a fine overall game in Sunday’s win over Miami but did give up 10 catches for 74 yards and two touchdowns to running back Myles Gaskin. Minter knows that will be a focal point for the Bucs’ defense this week. “Just be a little bit better at coverage on the running backs,” he said. “It sounds simple, but it can be fairly challenging with talented running backs like that. At the same time, we have to get it done, whether it be switching up coverages or just being a little bit better with technique.” Minter has shown some aptitude as a cover man in his brief stretches as a starter for the Buccaneers; he had a pass defensed in four of those five starts he made in White’s place. Sanders has been a productive pass-catcher for Philly since arriving as a second-round pick in 2019, starting with his 50 catches as a rookie. Gainwell was a fifth-round pick this year who put up big numbers as a pass-catcher at Memphis.
4. Buccaneers T Tristan Wirfs vs. Eagles DE Josh Sweat
In Week Five of the 2020 season, Wirfs’ first in the NFL, he gave up a sack to Chicago’s dynamic edge rusher, Khalil Mack. As it would turn out, that would be the only sack he was credited with allowing during the regular season, and so far in 2021 he has pitched a shutout in the same category. That’s quite a run but it will be tested this Thursday by Sweat. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave is the Eagles’ most ferocious pass-rusher this year and both Fletcher Cox and right end Derek Barnett have proven track records, but the Buccaneers shouldn’t assume that Sweat is the least of the Eagles’ threats up front. He is second on the team behind Hargrave with 1.5 sacks and has been credited with four quarterback hits. Sweat has excellent burst off the edge, as NFL Next Gen Stats say that he has had an average get-off at the snap of 0.86 seconds this season. That’s the exact same get-off speed that Von Miller has displayed this year, and it’s just a tick behind the 0.85-second average that Joey Bosa has been clocked with. The Buccaneers’ blocking scheme may have to pay extra attention to stopping Hargrave in the middle, which should create a number of one-on-one rush situations for Sweat, who has seen the majority of his snaps at left end, outside the right tackle. Wirfs has shown that he can handle speed-rushers around the end, of course, and he’s got nimble feet and quickness of his own to keep defenders from quickly bending around him and getting a straight line to the quarterback.
- Favorite: Buccaneers (-7.0)
- Over/Under: 53.0