Believe me when I say this - I hate to be a wet blanket.
But when it comes to the NFL, reality trumps optimism.
The Bucs lit the league on fire Sunday. They were the largest underdog by an entire point. Hardly anyone (except Bucs Nation) expected them to win, but all of that was incinerated by five o’clock eastern time.
What Tampa Bay did was incredible and it’s easy to get lost in the subsequent high that immediately follows a Week 1 victory against a division rival after a tumultuous offseason.
Don’t get it twisted, nothing is being taken away from Tampa Bay’s performance. It was the best offensive outing in franchise history.
But if Tampa Bay plays like they did against New Orleans, they won’t beat the Eagles.
I can already hear the pitchforks sharpening and I can smell the smoke from the torches. Before I am tarred, feathered, and dumped into the Bay, let me explain.
When it comes to playing teams like the Eagles, there are two major components that must be recognized in order to beat them: executing the little things and executing said items at the most crucial juncture.
Tampa Bay was unable to consistently complete either task on Sunday and it almost led to a comeback by the Saints. The Eagles showed during their ugly win on Thursday that they just know how to win - which is oftentimes the deadliest weapon in the NFL.
“I think they’ve won seven games in a row,” Dirk Koetter said after practice. They’re a confident team, they’re a fast team, they’ve got a great front four, they’ve got an awesome O-line. There’s a lot of things to be worried about, so I can’t give you exact order.”
Philadelphia won’t lose the game, they’ll make their opponent beat them.
The Bucs defense was downright atrocious for the majority of the game Sunday. What’s more important is how bad Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander were at times.
They really struggled against the Saints in space, which is something the Eagles’ offense excels at. Philadelphia is the Walter White of getting their best, explosive players in space - nothing they do can be matched and it’s always primo stuff.
David and Alexander allowed every ball thrown their way to be caught. They were targeted a combined 15 times and allowed 15 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown. That’s good for (11.13) yards per catch and eight first downs. Both players were graded at 61 or below in coverage and tackling, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles went after Atlanta’s linebackers. De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones saw mixed doses of Zach Ertz, Darren Sproles, and Nelson Agholor. All three Eagles were targeted a combined 11 times against Jones and Campbell - they caught six of those targets for about 30 yards.
While that stat line isn’t going to terrify anyone, there is no reason to think that area won’t be the first spot of the field tested on Sunday against the Bucs and if they don’t improve their coverage on the second level, the Eagles will eat their lunch all day long.
And don’t forget the fact that the Eagles have the best offensive line in the NFL, so it’s easy to see how important it will be for the Bucs to not only create pressure, but keep those hogs off of the linebackers so they can make plays.
Lane Johnson using a modified slingshot technique, cutting off, and decleating Grady Jarrett (3T) from the backside on this TD run is a thing of beauty. Level of difficult = 10. Level of excitement for me finding this = 11. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/yVsiP6Vith— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) September 10, 2018
The defensive line, while it looked decent at times, couldn’t pressure Drew Brees consistently enough to force errant throws. The result was a league-leading 82.2% completion rate.
Obviously, Nick Foles is no Brees, but he knows when to make the right throw and has dominated Tampa Bay in past meetings. If given time, he will light up this secondary. The Bucs recorded 13 pressures against Brees, which is a decent amount, but it’s nothing compared to the league-leading 20 pressures that the Patriots and Ravens produced over the weekend.
Mike Smith loves to run off-man coverage, leaving cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage for up to 10 yards at times. Bleeding Green Nations’ Tyler Jackson broke down the Eagles’ offense against Atlanta and described how the Eagles had no issue playing patient against Atlanta’s Cover 3 Shell, which is what they’ll do against the Bucs as well.
Combine the defensive scheme with the fact that the Bucs have lost Vernon Hargreaves III for the season and Brent Grimes is likely to miss his second straight game. The trio of Ryan Smith, Carlton Davis, and M.J. Stewart will get torched if Tampa Bay can’t rush Foles.
And when it mattered most, when the defense needed a stop to seal the deal - they couldn’t get it done. After a stellar third quarter, the defense allowed 14 points, 10 first downs, and 138 yards on 15 plays in the fourth quarter. If it weren’t for Fitzpatrick’s 3rd-and-11 scramble, then there is no reason to think that the Saints wouldn’t have rallied back.
The Bucs allowed the Saints to score on 80% of their redzone trips while the Eagles scored on 67% of theirs. Tampa Bay only converted 50% of their trips inside the 20 while Atlanta was even worse at 20%.
If the Bucs want a shot at the Eagles, those numbers have to improve across the board.
For the offense, it’s not impossible, but you shouldn’t expect this type of performance every week. It’s just not sustainable unless this team plans on going down as the greatest offense in NFL history and the chances of that are slim to none.
Where this team needs to improve on offense is their redzone scoring and their second half running game. As I mentioned earlier, the Bucs scored a touchdown on two of four trips inside the 20 against the Saints. The Eagles field a much better defense - especially in the redzone - and will make life that much harder for the Bucs.
Philadelphia also looks to have corrected their redzone woes when running the ball inside the 20 from last season. Just check out Bleeding Green Nation’s Michael Kist’s superb breakdown of the Eagles’ offensive scheme against Atlanta and you’ll see why it’s so important that the Bucs convert inside the redzone.
After rushing for 68 yards on 15 carries as a team in the first half, the Bucs managed a paltry 44 yards on 19 carries in the second half. It doesn’t matter if the team you’re playing against is expecting the run or not - you must execute in these scenarios.
Think about this as well, 11 of those 44 yards came on Fitzpatrick’s third down conversion to ice the game. That has to change against Philadelphia.
The Eagles’ defensive line will be a huge test for a Bucs’ offensive line that excelled in pass pro, but was very limited in the run game. The heat will test the depth in all trenches for both teams as the game wears on, so it will be crucial for Tampa Bay to execute efficiently on the ground.
The Bucs can’t expect to win if they don’t put the game away when it matters, but the running game isn’t the only component that can aid in that area. Unfortunately for the Bucs, it’s a reoccurring issue that has haunted them the past half-decade.
You guessed it, the kicking game.
Chandler Catanzaro had the chance to keep heart attacks at a minimum in the Bay area, but failed miserably to do so as he missed a 44-yard field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter that would’ve given the Bucs a three-score lead and essentially end the game.
The Saints took over and immediately drove down the field and scored a touchdown, then the subsequent two-point conversion to make it a one-score game.
The saving grace for Tampa Bay was third down and no turnovers. The Bucs were 8/13 on the money down, which includes Fitzpatrick’s game-winning scramble.
But excelling in those two areas alone won’t beat the Eagles on Sunday. It’s going to take an even better effort than what was witnessed against the Saints, as hard as that may be to believe.
If the Bucs can improve in these areas, then there is a great shot at a 2-0 start on the season. Regardless of what happens, Sunday will be a great evaluator of how far this team has really come and where they will go.