As the Eagles prepare for their Wildcard matchup with Tampa Bay, they’ll need a team effort to pull off the upset. From the running game to Jonathan Gannon’s defense, everyone is going to need to bring their A-game in this one.
With that being said, there are a handful of players in particular that need to have outstanding performances on Sunday. If these guys show out, the Eagles will have a very good chance at advancing to the next round.
Here are the five most important Eagles players entering their Wildcard contest.
While the Eagles offensive identity is through their No. 1 rushing attack, quarterback is still the most important position in football. Jalen Hurts shouldn’t be asked to much through the air this week. As long as the running game is effective, there will be no need for Hurts to air it out. But Hurts is a vital part of that rushing attack.
He finished the year with 774 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, both first among quarterbacks. Hurts averages 5.6 yards per carry, and 6.1 yards per carry on read option plays, which is higher than Lamar Jackson this season.
Hurts is the biggest X-factor for this Eagles run game. When he gets going, it opens up the entire rushing attack for guys like Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and Jordan Howard. As long as he doesn’t turn it over and continues to gash the Tampa defense with his legs, the Eagles offense should have no issues moving the football.
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: “You have to get pressure up the middle against Brady so he can’t step up.” That was a rhetorical question, I know you’ve heard that before. And for the most part, it’s true.
In year’s past, applying pressure along the interior hasn’t been an issue for the Eagles. In 2021, the age of their defensive line has finally started to show, in particularly with Fletcher Cox. He started 16 games this season, but Cox only managed 3.5 sacks, 35 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 12 quarterback hits. He also missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2014.
Cox hasn’t been the same player this year, but he’ll need to muster up some of that dominance we’re so accustomed to in this matchup. Tampa Bay has one of the better center/guard combos in the league with (from left to right) Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, and Alex Cappa, all of which rank inside the top-20 at their respective positions per PFF.
Cox will have his work cut out for him in this one. If he puts forth his best game of the season, the Eagles chances of winning will increase dramatically.
After receiving just one All-Pro vote this past week, Darius Slay should come into this matchup with a chip on his shoulder. He’ll primarily be locked up with Mike Evans, one of the best receivers in the game, but one who often gets overlooked. With Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown no longer in Tampa’s lineup, Evans has become the No. 1 option for Brady in the passing game.
Slay has been an absolute menace in coverage this season, allowing just 33.4 passing yards per game. When targeted, Slay is allowing a 58.8 completion percentage along with a passer rating of 74.4. Not to mention he’s recorded three interceptions and three defensive touchdowns this season.
If he can blanket Evans for the duration of Sunday’s contest, it will make life so much easier for everyone else on that Eagles defense. Force Brady to go to someone else and rely on his unproven receivers who have been thrust into action.
T.J. Edwards is playing the best football of his career right now. He finished the year as the unquestioned starter at linebacker and PFF ranked him as the tenth-best backer in football, posting a solid 73.8 overall grade for the year.
Edwards value to this defense will be tested in a handful of different ways on Sunday.
First, slowing down Leonard Fournette, both in the running game and on screens. It’s still unclear whether or not he’ll actually suit up, Bruce Arians stated he’ll be a game-time decision. Nevertheless, limiting Tampa’s rushing attack and ability to throw screens out of the backfield will be Edwards’ primary duty.
Secondly, he’ll need to limit passes across the middle to Tampa’s tight ends. The Bucs have a trio of capable tight ends at their disposal. Rob Gronkowski ranks as the fifth-best tight end in football per PFF. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate have also been solid contributors. Limiting throws over the middle of the field will be Edwards’ job in coverage.
Arians and Brady want to throw the ball over the middle as much as possible. They targeted the middle of the field at the third-highest rate of any other team in football this season until Godwin went down with a season ending injury.
Edwards will have his plate full this Sunday. It will without question be his biggest test to date.
Finally, the most valuable piece to the Eagles offense, Jason Kelce.
Holding the interior of Tampa’s defensive line at bay will be pivotal this Sunday. Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh are some of the best run stopping defensive tackles in football. If the Eagles are able to open up holes along the interior and push those two around, there’s no chance Tampa will be able to slow down this No. 1 rushing attack.
Kelce was just selected to his fourth All-Pro team this week, so we already know he’s the best center in football. Regardless, this will be a test for Kelce and the fortitude of the Eagles interior offensive line. Tampa’s only hope at stopping this running game is with Vea and Suh. If their impact is limited, the Eagles should have their way in that department.
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