8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Buccaneers -7, Over/Under: 52.5
Week Six begins tonight in the City of Brotherly Love, as the reigning Super Bowl Champions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, storm into Lincoln Financial Field for a midweek clash with the Philadelphia Eagles. For the first time since 1977, the defending champs return all twenty-two starters on both sides of the football, as the Buccaneers (4-1, 1st in NFC South) look intent on bringing another Lombardi Trophy to the Gulf Coast and maximizing what should be the twilight of their ageless Quarterback’s career. Of course, at this point nothing that Tom Brady (66.2%, 1,767 YDS, 7.29 NY/A, 15 TD, 2 INT, 65.6 QBR) accomplishes should come as a surprise, with the 44-year old continuing to defy father time with each stellar performance. A week after surviving an emotional return to Foxborough, the three-time MVP got right back to business against the Miami Dolphins, whom he torched for a season-high 411 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-17 drubbing of his former AFC East adversaries. No team in the National Football League had defeated him (12), sacked him (66), and intercepted him (27) more over the last two decades than the Dolphins, though that precedent wasn’t a factor at all in Sunday’s affair, as Brady made yet another bit of history in compiling 400 passing yards and five touchdowns in the same game for the first time in his venerable career. This contest only highlighted the growing gulf between the two franchises, as (Head Coach) Bruce Arians’ charges completely outclassed their neighbors to the south. After trading touchdowns throughout the first quarter, the hosts put their foot on the gas as they outscored the visiting side 38-10 the rest of the way en route to amassing 558 total yards, thirty-three first downs, 121 rushing yards on twenty-five carries, and 8-of-11 on third down, all the while possessing the football for a commanding 37:07. Nine different Bucs caught a pass, led by (veteran Receivers) Mike Evans (29 REC, 393 YDS, 13.6 Y/R, 4 TD) and Antonio Brown (20 REC, 325 YDS, 16.3 Y/R, 3 TD), who accounted for a combined 237 yards with a pair of scores apiece. (Veteran Tailback) Leonard Fournette (56 CAR, 251 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 1 TD) also got into the action as both a rusher and receiver, churning out sixty-seven yards and a touchdown on a dozen carries, while adding another forty-three yards on four receptions. Defensively, Tampa Bay routinely got after (Miami Quarterback) Jacoby Brissett, who ironically backed up Brady in New England in 2016, hitting him on seven occasions with three sacks, while also forcing him into an interception and a lost fumble. (Defensive Coordinator) Todd Bowles’ troops have been stout against the run all season and that continued against the Dolphins, who barely attempted to move the ball on the ground with a disappointing thirty-nine yards on nine carries. Indeed, it’s been a torrid start for the Buccaneers, which is in contrast that the previous campaign when they struggled into late-November to find the championship chemistry that they’ve enjoyed of late; dating back to December 13th of 2020, Arians & Co have won twelve of their last thirteen games (including the Playoffs), averaging a healthy 33.7 points on a robust 420.3 total yards of offense through that period, and have finally started to run the ball with success for the first time this season. After relying near exclusively on Brady’s arm through the first three games, Tampa has since incorporated more balance into the attack, racking up 120.5 rushing yards on 4.4 yards per carry, a dramatic increase over the meager 56.3 yards and 3.5 yards per attempt that they mustered in the pervious three outings. Why is this significant, you ask? Well, how about the fact that Brady is FORTY-FOUR for starters? The general train of thought when supporting as Quarterback at such an advanced age is to alleviate some of the pressure from him via the running game, though Brady has had none of that; nobody in the NFL has completed (149), attempted (225), or passed for yards (1,767) thus far than the 22-year veteran, and while the Bucs have certainly protected him well enough in relinquishing a 13.8% pressure rate (his lowest since the statistic began being recorded in 2018), there must be some lingering concern as to how sustainable this approach is. After all, injuries may not struck Brady, but they certainly have in other areas, with a number of prominent figures missing time with an assortment of ailments. (Veteran Tight End) Rob Gronkowski (16 REC, 184 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 4 TD) has missed the last two games with tender ribs, though the Defense has been hit the hardest; after getting (Cornerback) Jamel Dean (18 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD) back last weekend, (fellow Defensive Backs) Sean Murphy-Bunting (2 TKL) and Carlton Davis (15 TKL, 1 INT, 5 PD) continue to occupy a spot on Injured Reserve, while (veteran Linebacker) Lavonte David (34 TKL,1 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 PD) is expected to miss tonight’s contest with a sprained ankle. With that said, (Sophomore Safety) Antoine Winfield Jr (25 TKL,1 FF, 1 INT, 2 PD) is expected to make his return from a concussion suffered in that aforementioned trip to New England. The Buccaneers have faced the Eagles on just four occasions dating back to 2012, winning their last two meetings, including their last trip to Philly back in 2015. Of course, tonight’s contest also marks a reunion for Brady, who faces one of the two franchises that denied him Super Bowl glory; in the highest-scoring Super Bowl in history, Brady’s Patriots came up just short in a wild 33-41 affair back in early-2018. This is second encounter with them since that fateful affair, besting the birds 17-10 at Lincoln Financial Field. Furthermore, he’s enjoyed a good deal of success on Thursday nights, posting a stellar 8-1 record with an 18-4 touchdown/interception ratio.
Meanwhile, as the Bucs have their sights set on defending their crown, the Eagles (2-3, T-2nd in NFC East) remain in the formative stages of an obvious rebuild, though there has certainly been reason for optimism thus far. After an impressive 32-6 drubbing of the Atlanta Falcons in their Season Opener, Philadelphia dropped three consecutive games, including ugly losses to the Dallas Cowboys (21-41) and Kansas City Chiefs (30-42), but managed to right the ship in a resilient 21-18 victory last weekend at the Carolina Panthers. This was not an aesthetically pleasing performance by any means, but that’s not the point, as (Head Coach) Nick Sirianni’s charges responded well in the face of adversity as they clawed back from a 3-15 deficit that in all honesty could have been much worse. And that’s where the game changed, folks; after punting on all but one of their first drives, (Sophomore Quarterback) Jalen Hurts (64.8%, 1,365 YDS, 6.67 NY/A, 7 TD, 3 INT) saw his first snap of the possession fire past him into the end zone, where chaos ensued, with the intuitive young signal-caller knocking the football out of bounds, absorbing a safety rather than a touchdown. From there, Philly forced Carolina to punt, allowing Hurts to engineer a furious a 44-yard drive in five plays, culminating in (Kicker) Jake Elliott nailing a lengthy 58-yard field goal as the half expired. Though their next two drives would end in turnovers, the Eagles’ Defense would do it’s part in relegating the home side to just three points and 108 total yards in the second half, intercepting (Panthers’ Quarterback) Sam Darnold twice, and blocking a punt to set up the go-ahead score with just over two minutes left in the affair. Taking over on the host’s 27-yard line, Hurts found (Tight End) Dallas Goedert (15 REC, 216 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 2 TD) for a 20-yard strike to the 6-yard line, where he would eventually stroll into the end zone himself, followed by a successful two-point conversion to (Rookie Receiver) DeVonta Smith (25 REC, 314 YDS, 12.6 Y/R, 1 TD) to extend the lead to three points. Darnold would in turn pilot the Panthers to midfield, where a holding penalty moved them back to their own 35-yard line, where he would see his final pass of the afternoon intercepted by (veteran Cornerback) Steven Nelson (18 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD). In the end, that safety turned out to be the difference in the game, as Philadelphia struggled mightily on the offensive side of the football, amassing just 273 total yards, fifteen first downs, and a combined 4-of-14 on third and fourth down en route to possessing the football for only 24:57. Though he had a hard time passing the ball (22-of-37, 198 YDS, 1 INT), Hurts made plays with his legs, rushing for thirty yards and a pair of scores on nine attempts. Sirianni had to be pleased with the play of his Defense, which made life miserable for Darnold & Co, yielding 267 total yards, seventeen first downs, and 5-of-15 on third down, while logging three sacks and takeaways apiece. After giving up 40+ points in the previous two outings, it was imperative that this unit reestablish itself as the strength of the team, with (veteran Tackles) Javon Hargrave (27 TKL, 7 TFL, 9 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FF) and Fletcher Cox (7 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 TD), who combined for four Quarterback hits and a pair of sacks, wrecking havoc in the trenches and creating opportunities for the likes of (Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Darius Slay (21 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 INT, 3 PD), who picked off Darnold on two occasions. They’ll need to keep this momentum rolling as the young Offense continues to grow; Siranni’s troops reside in the middle of the pack on this side of the football, averaging 23.0 points (16th Overall) on 389.4 total yards (14th Overall), including 273.0 yards through the air (12th Overall) on 6.6 net yards per attempt (19th Overall), and another 116.4 yards on he ground (13th Overall) on a healthy 5.2 yards per carry (4th Overall), all the while converting 40.3% on third down (15th Overall) and 64.7% in the red zone (11th Overall). The criticism of this unit has been their ground game, which despite being productive when utilized hasn’t been put to use nearly enough; Philly ranks twenty-seventh in rushing attempts per game (22.6) with the aforementioned Hurts leading the team in rushing yards (256), yards per carry (6.0), and touchdowns (3). However, while the 23-year old has been adept at exploiting opponents via RPOs (Run-Pass Option), many will point to his production coming at the expense of (young Tailback) Miles Sanders (48 CAR, 214 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 0 TD). The 24-year old has seen fifteen or fewer carries in every game this season, including twenty in the last three outings combined, and despite playing a role in the passing game with sixteen receptions for 111 yards thus far, it feels like he simply hasn’t been utilized enough as a rusher. Remember, this is a kid that averaged 72.3 yards per game on the ground a year ago on a healthy 5.3 yards per carry, with those figures down to 42.8 and 4.5 respectively in 2021. Siranni along with (Offensive Coordinator) Shane Steichen must find a way to incorporate Sanders into the attack more, particularly when you consider the bulk of carries that their Quarterback is handling. The Philly faithful hope that their team will perform better in primetime than they have of late, for the Eagles have lost three consecutive primetime affairs after winning thirteen of their previous seventeen such contests dating back to 2017. With that said, they are a perfect 5-0 on Thursday night during that span, so cheer up boo-birds!