1. BUCS GUNNERS COREY IVY AND DWIGHT SMITH vs. EAGLES KR BRIAN MITCHELL
There are a lot of significant keys to winning most game, but perhaps the most important are stopping the run, turnovers and field position. Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell is a big-time field position changer. Owning virtually every return record, the 12-year veteran is still stinging opponents for 27 yards per kick return and 12.3 yards per punt return. Mitchell has also taken a punt back 76 yards for a touchdown this season.
In Tampa Bay's 20-10 loss at Philadelphia earlier this season, Mitchell had five punt returns for 61, including a 29-yarder that set up a Philadelphia touchdown in the first half. Two plays after Mitchell's big return, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb hooked up with receiver Todd Pinkston for a 42-yard touchdown right before halftime to put Philly ahead 10-7.
Mitchell was also a force on kickoff returns in Week 7, with three returns for 83 yards, including a 47-yarder.
"Special teams gave up some big plays to Brian Mitchell, which was a huge winning edge for Philadelphia in terms of setting up field position," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said after the game.
Cornerback Dwight Smith, one of Tampa Bay's gunners who will be the first to get a shot at Mitchell, thinks Mitchell's ability to change the field position is a huge challenge the Bucs will have to overcome in order to get a win.
"He's the key to the whole game," Smith said. "If we can limit him to yards, it's going to be tough for them to move the ball against our defense. If we could create good field position for our offense and make it a short field then we could score some touchdowns and get up early."
Bucs offensive star Keyshawn Johnson would love to see some short field situations and understands how shutting down Mitchell not only helps the Bucs' defense, but it helps the offense, too.
"I don't play special teams, but I know that Brian Mitchell is a huge factor in this game because of his ability to put them in great field position and put us in poor field position," Johnson said. "If they get the ball on the 40-yard line and we hold them to a three-and-out and force them to kick the ball back to us, we're backed up to the 15-yard line. He's a terrific special teams player. He's wonderful and he's got all the records. You just have to neutralize him."
The fact that Mitchell is one of the game's best trash talkers has Tampa Bay's leading special teams tackler, Corey Ivy (23 tackles), fired up for Sunday's game.
"As a total special teams (unit), we're tired of hearing about Brian Mitchell and how he's so elusive and how he's going to break long runs. We're just going to go out there and do our job and wrap him up."
The key will be for Ivy and Smith to come down in control and protect the sidelines, which should force Mitchell to work the middle of the field where the teeth of Tampa Bay's coverage unit will be waiting. If Mitchell gets outside containment, extra yards will be found down the sidelines.
2. BUCS RUN DEFENSE vs. EAGLES RB DUCE STALEY
The winner of the last three meaningful meetings (two wild card playoff games and this year's game on October 20), has been the team that has won the rushing battle. Of course that team has been Philadelphia, which has outgained Tampa Bay in rushing yards by a significant margin.
In the Pewter Pirates' 21-3 wild card loss in 2000, they were outgained on the ground 126-50 behind Chris Warren's 82 yards. Quarterback Donovan McNabb also chipped in 36 yards on scrambles.
In the Bucs' 31-9 wild card loss in 2001, they were outrushed 148-63 behind the legs of QB Donovan McNabb (57 yards) and RB Correll Buckhalter (55 yards). Duce Staley, who was coming off an injury, also contributed 34 yards on 14 carries.
In their Week 7 matchup this season, the Eagles outrushed the Bucs 159-81 thanks to a 152-yard effort from Staley. The Bucs had held Staley in check for most of the game before he ripped off a 57-yard run late in the fourth quarter when the game had already been decided.
The good news is that the Bucs' rushing totals have climbed with each encounter, going from 50 yards in 2000 to 63 yards in 2001 to 81 yards this season. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Philly's rushing totals have also escalated. The Eagles have gone from 126 yards in 2000 to 148 yards last season to 159 yards this year.
Tampa Bay cornerback Dwight Smith simply states how the Bucs can win this matchup.
"Hustle and tackle," Smith said. "If we hustle and tackle we win. If we tackle Duce Staley better we win."
Sure tackling is the answer for Tampa Bay. They will occasionally bring a safety into the box on run downs, and that may be John Lynch or Dexter Jackson, who has played a lot closer to the line of scrimmage this season.
"Whoever ran the ball and had the most yards won," Bucs tackle Kenyatta Walker added. "It's that simple."
3. BUCS RECEIVERS vs. EAGLES SECONDARY
Notice how I said secondary? The Eagles play a lot more zone than you would think. The only time the Eagles cornerbacks engage in man coverage is when defensive coordinator Jim Johnson brings the blitz on long third downs or on obvious passing situations.
That means it's up to the Bucs receivers to read the blitz at the line of scrimmage and be on the same page with Johnson for the necessary route adjustments. Tampa Bay's receivers also have to make sure to go past the first down marker on third downs, which is something that Atlanta didn't do with much success against the Eagles last week. Once they get there, they have to catch the ball. Johnson can't afford to have too many of his passes dropped against the Eagles' stout secondary, which Tampa Bay receiver Keyshawn Johnson thinks is the best in football.
"They've got two corners in the secondary that are Pro Bowlers, and a third guy who could potentially start for a third of the teams in the NFL," Johnson said. "You have a safety that is in the top 3 in the NFL. You have another safety that is on the decline, but he's always been on the top of his game when he was in Houston or Nashville, or Memphis, or wherever the hell the Titans play at. You've got a pretty strong secondary there.
"They do a lot of things defensively to disrupt you. Not so much man-to-man like you may think. It's a lot of zone blitzing, and getting in your face, then on certain down and distances when they want to come, that's when they play man-to-man to put the pressure on the quarterback. That way they don't have to stay in that coverage too long."
Pro Bowl cornerback Bobby Taylor leads the team in interceptions, getting five during the regular season and returning one for a key touchdown against St. Louis. The 6-foot-2 Taylor, who will likely match up with the 6-foot-4 Keyshawn Johnson, added another pick last week against Atlanta, returning it for a touchdown. Troy Vincent, Philadelphia's other Pro Bowl corner, has two interceptions this season and is known for his tight coverage. The big gun in the secondary is Pro Bowl free safety Brian Dawkins, who has two interceptions to go along with his three sacks and team-leading 131 tackles.
The Bucs receivers will have to be extremely physical on Sunday and use crossing routes and slants to catch the ball on the move and get yards after the catch. Tampa Bay's receivers will have to be the chain-movers on Sundays because it might be difficult to run the ball on Philly's defense.
4. BUCS OFFENSIVE LINE vs. EAGLES DEFENSIVE LINE
Defensive end Hugh Douglas has given the Buccaneers fits in the past, especially in the postseason where he has totalled three sacks in Tampa Bay's Wild Card losses in 2000 and 2001. And who could forget Douglas' sack of quarterback Shaun King that forced a fumble that was recovered by the Eagles on the Bucs' 15-yard line right before halftime? Philadelphia extended their lead to 14-3 with a 5-yard scoring strike from Donovan McNabb to receiver Na Brown with 12 seconds to go in the first half.
Although he was held without a sack in the Bucs' trip to Philly in 2002, the intense attention that Tampa Bay paid to Douglas allowed his defensive linemates to record four of the Eagles' sacks that day. Defensive ends N.D. Kalu and Brandon Whiting each had one sack, as did tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker.
During the regular season, Douglas led the way with 12.5 sacks, followed by Kalu's eight, Walker's seven-and-a-half, Whiting's six and Simon's two. Although Simon only had a pair of quarterback takedowns, he had 25 hurries, which was one behind Douglas' team-leading 26. Simon finds a way to get to the quarterback.
The reason why Philly's defensive line is so hard to stop is because their interior linemen, Simon, Walker and Paul Grasmanis, who has four sacks, do such a great job getting penetration. Tampa Bay's running backs are never called on to block inside, only outside. So that means the trio of center Jeff Christy and guards Kerry Jenkins and Cosey Coleman will be solely responsible for stoning the Eagles defensive tackles. Christy can't double team two defenders, so that means that either Jenkins or Coleman will get a one-on-one.
"When you really study them, they aren't blitzing as prolifically as one would think," Tampa Bay offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "They have a certain blitz package they like to employ, and the key is being able to identify their intentions and being able to make some adjustments. This is really a game that you need to practice with your eyes. They'll give some things away in terms of alignments and predispositions. It's a challenge. They're not as prolific in terms of the Carolina Panthers were or the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they don't have to blitz. That's a good front four they've got. Hugh Douglas is the bell cow of that group."
Tampa Bay wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson added that the Bucs offensive line has done a better job of protecting the quarterback since their Week 7 encounter at Philadelphia.
"Protecting the quarterback is key," Johnson said. "The offensive line has to pick up the blitzes as they come and to recognize them before they get there. For Brad and all of us to recognize it and check out of the things we need to. I think in Week 7 we weren't sure. We didn't understand. Now we do."
Each Bucs offensive lineman will be involved in a one-on-one at some point in time in pass protection. The onus will be on the Bucs to win those matchups by playing mistake-free football and being physical.
5. BUCS COACH JON GRUDEN vs. EAGLES COACH ANDY REID
Philadelphia's Andy Reid was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year this season after leading his team to a 12-4 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and doing it with third-string quarterback A.J. Feeley down the stretch while Donovan McNabb recovered from a broken ankle. Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden proved he was worth the two first-round draft picks and the two second-round draft picks the Glazers gave up for him this year by guiding the Bucs to a franchise-best 12-4 record. Since 2000, both Gruden and Reid have won an NFL-high 34 games.
Both are offensive wizards who learned the West Coast offense under Mike Holmgren at Green Bay and the key will be for them to find some offense to go against each other's rugged defenses. Tampa Bay owns the top-rated defense while Philadelphia's defense is the league's fourth-best. In their Week 7 clash, the Eagles held the Bucs to a season-low 207 total yards and only three points offensively. Philadelphia had more success, totaling 20 points thanks to great field position from the return game and turnovers. Yet, the Eagles only managed 269 yards of offense.
Gruden and Reid are equally adept at challenging and motivating their respective teams. This matchup will be won on two fronts on Sunday. The first front is which coach has to abandon his game plan first. In the first matchup, Gruden abandoned the run too early at Philadelphia while Reid kept plugging away, which allowed halfback Duce Staley to wear down the Bucs with over 70 yards rushing in the fourth quarter.
The second front is making adjustments. Reid is a master at making adjustments, as he did in the second half against Atlanta last week by continually going to the screen pass against an overly aggressive Falcons defense. Staley and running back Dorsey Levens had a field day in the second half on screen passes and Atlanta defensive coordinator Wade Phillips couldn't adjust in time.
Gruden and his staff will be charged with the responsibility of making similar adjustments to counter Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's blitz packages. But Gruden will also have to be more patient with a running game that is now averaging 126 yards per game over the last five games, including a 121-yard effort against San Francisco last week in the NFC divisional playoffs. Gruden will have to outcoach Reid in order for the Bucs to win.