Has Hurts Improved Enough to Defeat Bucs?

Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - Rematches in the playoffs can typically be informed by the previous meeting. Matchups such as Patriots-Bills, Steelers-Chiefs, and Cardinals-Rams are all rematches from games in Week 14 and beyond. That's recent enough to be meaningful with respect to injuries, schematic tweaks, and trends in quality of play.

The Eagles-Bucs wild card game, a rematch from all the way back in Week 6, does not really fall into that bin. The Eagles have found and embraced a new offensive identity since then, while the Bucs have slowly faded from dominant to a normal kind of great. Maybe that is not enough swing in both directions to give the Eagles an upper hand this time around, but it's better than nothing.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  PHI TB
DVOA 3.8% (15) 27.6% (3)
WEI DVOA 3.3% (12) 25.8% (4)
Eagles on Offense
  PHI OFF TB DEF
DVOA 8.2% (11) -3.5% (9)
WEI DVOA 7.4% (10) -4.6% (12)
PASS 18.0% (14) 0.7% (10)
RUSH 7.2% (3) -11.8% (12)
Buccaneers on Offense
  PHI DEF TB OFF
DVOA 4.7% (25) 26.7% (1)
WEI DVOA 5.0% (26) 24.2% (1)
PASS 13.1% (25) 43.9% (1)
RUSH -6.2% (19) 6.9% (4)
Special Teams
  PHI TB
DVOA 0.3% (15) -2.5% (27)

All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

PHI Week-to-Week Graph

The Eagles offense should be better than they were the last time around. When these teams faced off in Week 6, quarterback Jalen Hurts completed fewer than half his passes, the run game never quite got established, and the offensive line was not clicking in the way that it is now. Since then, Hurts has become a better passer, the run game has been resuscitated, and the offensive line is protecting as well as any unit in the NFL.

Let's start with Hurts. The second-year quarterback is both better than many thought he would be and yet not quite as good or complete as he needs to be for the Eagles to be serious this season. On the plus side, Hurts offers mobility, both as a scrambler and in the designed run game. Using Hurts as an option quarterback behind an offensive line as athletic as Philadelphia's allows them to pull linemen and manipulate space in the box better than just about any team in the league.

As a passer, Hurts has been great throwing outside the numbers and the offense has catered to that. The offense loves Stick concepts, speed outs, corner routes, flat routes, bubble screens, etc.—anything to get the ball on the perimeter. Not only does Hurts see those throws more comfortably, but he has more than enough accuracy to be effective.

The problem is, Hurts is still hesitant to use the middle of the field. Only 46 of Hurts' passes this year were marked as being thrown down the middle. Against a Bucs defense that has been shaky between the numbers thanks to middling coverage from their linebackers and constant injuries at safety, this should be a matchup where the middle of the field can be exploited, but Hurts will need to step up and prove it.

The Eagles may also struggle handling Todd Bowles' heavy dose of blitzing, depending on which side of the Hurts coin comes up. Hurts has been a gash-or-be-gashed passer against the blitz. He ranks 28th out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage against the blitz, which suggests he has struggled to find the easy way out. However, he ranks ninth in yards per attempt against the blitz, which suggests he has been able to find big plays from time to time. With the Bucs leading the league in blitzing, though, it's easy to imagine the sheer volume of blitzes could get to Hurts unless he's on his A-game.

All that being said, the ground game is where Philly really gives themselves a fighting chance here. Last year, saying that for any team facing the Tampa Bay front would be heresy, but they have not been dominant this year. The Bucs' defense slipped to 17th in run defense from Week 10 onwards. Some of that is injury-related, as is the case with most of the Bucs' struggles this year, but some players, including defensive tackle Vita Vea, have just not quite been up to par with what they were last year. That's a tough standard to maintain, so nobody should be crushing them for it, but it's the reality of the 2021 Bucs.

The Eagles' run game is primed to give Tampa Bay problems, too. Not only does the Eagles offensive line rank fourth in adjusted line yards, but they can get away with stuff other teams can not. First-team All-Pro center Jason Kelce is the most athletic player at his position, which enables the Eagles to use him as a puller and get him in space in a way virtually no other team can do with their center. It's hard to game-plan for a team with such a unique edge like that, never mind what Hurts brings as a runner and all the problems that presents for the Bucs. Tampa Bay's non-Lavonte David linebackers do not have the sharpest eyes in the run game, either, which could make all of Philadelphia's pulling concepts and option game even more effective.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

TB Week-to-Week Graph

This side of the matchup offers less excitement. If anything, a couple of key losses among the Bucs' skill players might give an otherwise flailing Eagles defense a fighting chance.

The release of Antonio Brown is the most recent loss, but the Bucs are still without Chris Godwin as well. Godwin suffered a torn ACL in the team's Week 16 shutout loss to the New Orleans Saints. Even after missing the last few weeks, Godwin still leads the team in just about every volume receiving stat except touchdowns, while Brown ranked second on the team in catches per game when he was healthy.

On the one hand, that simplifies things for the Eagles defense. Mike Evans is now the only wide receiver worth his salt for a Bucs offense that typically majors in 11 personnel (three wide receivers). Cornerback Darius Slay should be allowed to shadow Evans whenever the Eagles feel compelled to do so without having to worry about one of Tampa Bay's other Pro Bowl receivers running amok elsewhere.

On the other hand, it's not like the Eagles defense handles the rest of what the Bucs can do very well. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, though a clear tier or two behind what he once was, is still one of the best handful of tight ends in the league. The Eagles' linebackers can run a bit, but they are not equipped to squeeze windows in zone or play tight to routes in man coverage against someone as physical as Gronkowski. The Eagles finished the year 27th in pass defense DVOA against tight ends, and Gronkowski is the right kind of player to expose that weakness. Philly gets a small reprieve in that the Bucs are the least-frequent users of play-action in the league, which should make things a bit easier for their linebackers, but that isn't enough to tip things in their favor here.

The Bucs also win the war up front. Half of that is thanks to the Bucs' offensive line talent; the other half is thanks to Tom Brady's play style and efficiency. Tampa Bay has the best right tackle in the league (Tristan Wirfs) and perhaps the best center (Ryan Jensen) and left guard (Ali Marpet). All of them are barroom brawlers, too, and will have zero hesitation bringing the fight to Philadelphia's front. Combine that with Brady's low time-to-throw, and that's how the Bucs finish the year first in adjusted sack rate (3.5%).

Philadelphia's typical approach may not be able to disrupt that formula, either. The Eagles sent the second-fewest blitzes in the NFL this year, ahead of only the Las Vegas Raiders. While that is in part because they trust their front four, the Eagles ended the year just 28th in pressure rate and now faces a Bucs offense that ranked first in pressure rate allowed. That is a shame for the Eagles, because Brady has quietly been mediocre when pressured this season, sitting at 23rd in completion percentage and 15th in yards per attempt among 31 qualifying quarterbacks. Unless the Eagles vary their approach to find ways to get some heat, Brady is probably going to be sitting comfy in the pocket for a majority of this game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Oddly enough, special teams is the area where the Eagles have the clearest advantage. That has more to do with the Bucs' struggles than anything, though. Tampa Bay's special teams units have all earned negative value this season, save for their punt return unit.

If the game comes down to a game-winning kick, the Bucs may be in a little trouble. Ryan Succop has hit 7-of-10 attempts between 40 and 49 yards this year, which is fine, but missed his lone 50-plus-yard attempt. Perhaps he has so few attempts from that range because the Bucs can always go for it and convert, but Succop went just 1-of-3 from beyond 50 yards between the 2019 and 2020 seasons as well. Eagles kicker Jake Elliott, however, is 10-of-13 from 40 to 49 yards and a stellar 3-of-3 beyond 50 yards this season. Elliott has also yet to miss an extra point, whereas Succop has whiffed on three.

OUTLOOK

Parts of this game are more encouraging for Philadelphia than they were three months ago. Their offense has really found its footing, primarily at quarterback, while the Bucs have not quite looked like the Super Bowl lock they may have looked like early in the season. Still, Hurts' current inability to attack the middle of the field as a passer, as well as his volatility against blitzes, are going to make it tough for the Eagles to truly go punch for punch in this one unless they can have a dominant day on the ground. That's certainly in the cards, but it does reduce their margin for error.

The Bucs, on the other end, have Brady, an impenetrable offensive line, and a defense that is still good, even if not as dominant as it once was. The Bucs' margin for error is much wider, and they are clear favorites in this matchup for good reason.

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

5 comments, Last at 16 Jan 2022, 2:53pm

4 Injuries

QB Hurts (ankle) won't be scrambling much. He rushed for 2 TDs in the 4th against TB last time. Sack leader (7+) DE Sweat out = who'll rush Brady?

TB has a long list of injuries:

RB Jones (4TD/2Fum) out, Center Jensen (shoulder) probable, WR Evans (hamstring, 14TDs) probable not 100%, WR Graysons (2TDs) out. RB Bernard (hip) questionable back from IR (3TDs/1fum), RB Jone (ankle) 4TDs/2fum out. 2 CBs out (61tackles/1FF/1Int). RB Vaughn (quad) probable. no more WR A. Brown (TD vs PHI in week 6). RB Fournett (hamstring + covid) back from IR/covid = not 100% (2TDs vs PHI week 6). CB Rich Sherman (IR). WR Godwin (ACL) out.

Can Brady win with just Gronk + Succop?

Game time line TB -7 = I just can't go against Brady. pick TB -7.