Didinger's Eagles-Bucs scouting report
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Sizing up Sunday’s game between the Eagles (3-9) and Tampa Bay Buccaneeers (6-6) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
When the Eagles have the ball
One difference we are seeing with Nick Foles at quarterback and Riley Cooper getting more playing time is the size factor. It helps to have a 6-6 quarterback throwing the ball to a 6-3 (almost 6-4) receiver. That is particularly true in the red zone.
You saw it on the 15-yard touchdown pass from Foles to Cooper on Monday in Dallas. Foles threw a perfect pass and Cooper reached past Brandon Carr, a 6-foot cornerback, and pulled it in with one hand. It was a great play, especially for a team that is normally so bad in the red zone.
Prior to the last game, the Eagles had scored just 13 touchdowns on 33 trips inside the 20-yard line. They were 29th in red zone efficiency. But Monday, they scored touchdowns on all three red zone possessions. It was their best performance of the season.
Two of the touchdowns were runs by Bryce Brown, who had another big game (24 carries for 169 yards), but the Foles to Cooper pass was the most interesting because it pointed to an advantage the Eagles now may have moving forward. They can out-size other teams in that critical part of the field.
It is hard for a short quarterback like Mike Vick to find smallish receivers like DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in the clutter of big bodies inside the 20. It is one of the reasons the Eagles had trouble making plays down there and so often lost the ball on turnovers.
But a tall quarterback like Foles can see better and a bigger target like Cooper is easier to locate. Even if the receiver is covered -- and Carr had good position on Cooper -- he has a better chance to make the play simply because he has a size advantage over the defender. Cooper has two touchdowns this season, both in the red zone. (The first was the leaping, one-handed catch of a Vick pass against Dallas at the Linc).
It is worth mentioning this week because the Eagles can use it to their advantage against the Buccaneers. Their defense is tied for ninth in red zone stops, but their cornerbacks are vulnerable. E.J. Biggers is a seventh-round pick, and rookie Leonard Johnson is an undrafted free agent. Biggers is listed at 6-0, and Johnson is listed at 5-10, so the Eagles will want to exploit those matchups with Cooper, especially in the red zone.
The Tampa Bay defense is an odd mix. It ranks 30th overall, first against the run, 32nd against the pass. So once again the temptation will be there for Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg to go all pass-happy and forget about running the ball with Brown. That would be a mistake.
Foles clearly performed better the last two games when the play-calling was more balanced (52 runs, 55 passes). His worst game was the first one in which the coaches called 50 passes to just 21 runs. Foles was far more comfortable -- and the line much better -- in the last two games when the defense was worried about Brown gashing them on the ground.
The key to running the ball on the Bucs is controlling the nose tackle Roy Miller. That will be the responsibility of center Dallas Reynolds.
When the Bucs have the ball
The Bucs have been a pleasant surprise this season, especially on offense where they are a lot more explosive than anyone expected. Coach Greg Schiano came in vowing to make the Bucs tougher and more physical and he has done that. But to find them up there with New England, Denver and Houston in scoring touchdowns (38), well, that is a stunner.
It did not start out very well with the Bucs losing three of their first four games and Josh Freeman struggling to pick up offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s system. Also, the O-line lost its two best starters, guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, so the new line coach Bob Bostad had to shuffle the deck and move players around and promote guys from the practice squad and piece it together as best he could.
But somehow it clicked. Freeman found a rhythm working with two new receivers, tight end Dallas Clark, who won a Super Bowl ring with Indianapolis, and Vincent Jackson, a 6-5, 230-pound playmaker who came over from San Diego. Sullivan smoothed out some of Freeman’s mechanical flaws -- like falling backwards as he released the ball -- and the quarterback got on a roll. In a five-game stretch, he threw 13 touchdown passes and just one interception and improved his passer rating by 23 points.
Rookie running back Doug Martin also got off to a slow start, averaging just over three yards per carry through the first four games. But Schiano noticed Martin was dropping his head as he ran into the line. Schiano worked with him on keeping his head up so he could find the daylight and cut back if the lane was there. Martin’s production improved immediately.
Martin is tied with Washington’s Alfred Morris for the rookie rushing lead with 1,106 yards. He has nine rushing touchdowns. He also has caught 32 passes for 374 yards, an average of 11.7 yards per catch, which is huge for a running back. Baltimore’s Ray Rice for example is averaging just 8.3 yards per catch.
At 5-9 and 225 pounds, Martin is a physical runner. He hates his nickname (the Muscle Hamster) but it fits. He is a thickly built, low-to-the-ground runner who breaks tackles and runs with good balance. He is showing signs of wearing down, however. He may have hit the rookie wall. He had just 50 yards on 21 carries against Atlanta two weeks ago and did not do much better Sunday in Denver (18 carries, 56 yards).
Of course, if you are Freeman, why would you even want to run the ball against the Eagles? Every quarterback who has played against them in the last six weeks has lit it up to the tune of 75 percent completions and 16 touchdowns with no interceptions. Freeman is having a big year (23 touchdown passes, a 92.1 rating) and should have no difficulty in carving up the slapstick comedy that is the Eagles' secondary.
It is scary to think what Vincent Jackson might do to this defense. He leads the Bucs with 50 receptions and his 20.7-yard average per catch is the highest in the league.
The good news out of Dallas on Monday was the Eagles' special teams, which was awful for most of the season, actually had a good night. Damaris Johnson set a club record with a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown and Alex Henery extended his streak of successful field goal attempts to 19, also a club record. Henery had four touchbacks on his five kickoffs, so he continues to improve in that area.
The strength of the Tampa Bay special teams is kicker Connor Barth. The team thought so highly of him it put the franchise tag on him this year. Barth has kicked six field goals longer than 50 yards this season, including a 59-yarder. Punter Michael Koenen is one of the better directional kickers in the league and often helps the Bucs win the battle of field position.
All the intangibles in this game are on the side of the Buccaneers. They still have a shot at making the playoffs as a wild-card team and Schiano will sell that to his players in a big way. They are 6-6 and after the Eagles they play New Orleans (5-7), St. Louis (5-6-1) and Atlanta (11-1) in the final week when the Falcons may be sitting most of the starters.
So the Bucs have something to play for even though they are coming off disappointing losses to Atlanta (24-23) and Denver (31-23). They can’t afford another loss this week against the Eagles. Knowing that ...
I expect the Bucs to come out and play hard Sunday. The Eagles, not so much.
Buccaneers 24, Eagles 17.