NFC Championship Break down

The Eagles own the Buccaneers. In their past three matchups, two of those in the first round of the playoffs in back to back seasons, the Eagles have outscored Tampa Bay 72-22. In those three games, the Bucs have only scored one defensive touchdown and that was in this year's regular season tiff, when the Eagles defeated Tampa by 10 points.

The big question coming into this championship game at the Vet is whether the Buccaneers truly have the firepower to finally challenge the Eagles' frenetic defense.


Tampa put a 31-spot on the board against San Francisco, but that was against a tired, depleted defense that's secondary has been torched all season long. Coach Jon Gruden, a master play caller who uses motion and a lot of different personnel to exploit weaknesses within a defense, will tell you first hand that he's going up against a different animal this Sunday.


The Eagles' secondary is the best in football. Linebackers Carlos Emmons and Shawn Barber can cover tight ends and shadow running backs flanked out at receiver or into the flat. And as we all know, the Eagles pass rush is lethal.


In fact, you can make the argument that coming into this game, the Eagles defense is playing just as well as Tampa's D, which ranked No.1 in a number of statistical categories this season, and put on a laser show against the overmatched 49ers' offense last week.


So how will the Buccaneers' offense win the matchups within this matchup, this time around? Here's how the game breaks down.


Buccaneers pass offense versus Eagles pass defense: If Tampa Bay is forced to pass the ball all over the field on Sunday, they'll lose and lose big. The Bucs' line doesn't have the quickness up front to pick up the Eagles' blitz consistently, and Johnson's targets, Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius are not threats to stretch the field deep.


In all likelihood, Tampa will set up a lot of short, quick pass plays to negate Philly's heavy pass rush. By dinking and dunking underneath the Eagles' coverage, the Bucs will put themselves in manageable third-down situations, where they won't necessarily have to pass the ball to keep the chains moving.


The Eagles' corners have been exploited at times in man to man coverage this season, but Vincent and Taylor should own this matchup because they have the speed to stay with Tampa's receivers easily, and the size to battle for jump balls.


The key for the Eagles will be throwing off Brad Johnson's timing by jamming the receivers at the line of scrimmage. Look for the Eagles to crowd the middle of the field by using a number of dime packages and by dropping a couple of their linebackers into coverage, in order to take away the crossing and slant routes.


Advantage: Eagles


Buccaneers rush offense versus Eagles rush defense: If Gruden has any confidence going into this battle against the birds' awesome defense, it stems from the fact that his Raiders ran all over the Eagles front seven last year in the Vet.


In that matchup, Oakland's bullish offensive line was able to push the Eagles' lighter line up field and created space for tailbacks Charlie Garner and Zach Crockett to dash through. The Raiders opened up their rush attack by spreading the Eagles out, giving them various looks to imply that they would come out pitching, and Oakland threw Philly's D a biting curve ball instead by running the ball down their throats.


However, that was then, this is now. Gruden's line isn't as physically imposing as his front five was in Oakland. His interior linemen have struggled all season to hold their ground at the point of attack, and as a result, Tampa tailbacks have had to break a lot more tackles to gain yardage past the line of scrimmage.


Still, Gruden will look to run the ball because he has no other way of attacking the Eagles' defense. Fullback Mike Alstott has struggled in all of previous outings against the Eagles, and Michael Pittman doesn't have the speed to challenge inside linebacker Levon Kirkland to chase him sideline to sideline. Don't be surprised if Philadelphia doesn't even bother bringing a safety up into the box to spy the run.


Speaking of Kirkland, his presence has made a tremendous impact on the Eagles' improvement against the run. Weighing 300 pounds (don't bet on that weight being correct); Kirkland is a huge plug who acts more like a nose tackle than he does a linebacker. His ability to stack and shed is still solid, and he invites a collision with any fullback trying to block him.


Advantage: Eagles


Eagles pass rush versus Buccaneers pass protection: Out of all the matchups on paper, this is easily the biggest mismatch in the Eagles' favor. But then again, most offenses that face the Eagles blitz don't handle themselves too well.

It all starts up front, where players from the Eagle front four can bring the heat. N.D. Kalu and Hugh Douglas have great speed and a high end motor off the edges; tackles Darwin Walker and Corey Simon have the ability to penetrate up field in a hurry. To add to the mayhem, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will use a number of blitz packages from different angles in order to confuse the pass protectors up front.

There will be times when seven players are nestled closely at the line of scrimmage ready to pounce on the quarterback, and three of those players will drop into coverage. Then on the very next play, all seven come at once. Johnson has also used both of his corners to blitz off the corner at the same time and safety Brian Dawkins is someone most lines should be cognizant of, because he's one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league.


To combat the schemes, the Buccaneers' offensive line has to recognize the defensive alignment that's in front of them, in order to pick up the blitz smoothly. If just one player misses his assignment, the pass protection scheme will be exploited. The backs and tight ends will also play a key role in picking up the Eagles blitz, if Tampa Bay decides to use maximum protection to give Brad Johnson more time to throw.


Advantage: Eagles


Eagles pass offense versus Buccaneers pass defense: Traditionally, Tampa Bay's secondary will line up in a cover two formation, which is supposed to negate big plays from occurring in the passing game. However, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin may look to concentrate on stopping the Eagles' rushing attack first, by deploying strong safety John Lynch into the box.

This move could play right into quarterback Donovan McNabb's hands, because he throws the deep ball with as much accuracy and touch as any signal caller in the league. McNabb should get his opportunity to fire his passes in either half of the field, wherever the free safety is out of range to make a play on the ball.  

However, if the Eagles aren't able to stretch the Bucs' secondary out some by hitting on their vertical passes,
Tampa Bay will cut off the Eagles' intermediate game.

Tampa's linebackers cover the pass as well as any group in the league. Headed by defensive player of the year Derrick Brooks, the group has great range, speed and vision, which allows each individual player to break on the ball almost as quickly as a defensive back does.


It will also be quite tough for the Eagles to run their screen passes to their backs and receivers, because the Buccaneers front seven is extremely disciplined and fast. They'll close on most plays in a hurry.  


Advantage: Buccaneers


Eagles rush offense versus Buccaneers rush defense: The Buccaneers have dominated most rushing attacks all season long, but they were outclassed against the Eagles in the regular season battle.


The matchup up front between both lines favors the Eagles, because Philadelphia's line outweighs the Bucs' speedy front by a good 20-30 pounds per player. The Eagles front five features two of the best run blocking tackles in the NFL in Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, and an interior line that is as physical as any in the league.


Tampa Bay's defensive tackles, Warren Sapp and Chartric Darby, will need to penetrate and maneuver past guards Jon Welbourn and Jermane Mayberry to get into the backfield; because there is no way that they can physically handle the task of pushing the pocket. However, if both tackles get up field too quickly, the Eagles will run delays and draw plays up the gut, abusing a Tampa front that is somewhat soft.  


Meanwhile, Thomas and Runyan need to seal off defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires. While both ends are undersized, they have improved their ability to shed blockers by using their hands to disengage. Still, if Thomas and Runyan stay square against Rice and Spires, they should be able to move the two ends out of the way so that tailback Duce Staley can operate off the edge.


Look for the Eagles to continue to use the end around play as well, to help create a lane for their backs to creep through, and to force Rice and Spires to make a decision on whether to chase the receiver or the tailback.  


Advantage: Eagles


Buccaneers pass rush versus Eagles pass protection: While Philly's pass rush packs a mighty blow, Tampa's rush is one of the best in the league as well. The Buccaneers' front four is the best in football, bar none.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin rarely uses the blitz to enhance his pass rush, unless his front four is tired or lacks the motivation to pursue. Ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires have a tremendous motor, along with the speed to get a jump on most offensive tackles before they drop back into their stance. Defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Chartrick Darby are squatty players who have the powerful leg drive and quickness to penetrate through the gaps of an interior line.


They get after any quarterback, whether he is mobile or not.


Philadelphia's line has been outstanding the whole season, especially in pass protection situations. The front five is essentially comprised of four offensive tackles, as guards Jon Welbourn and Jermane Mayberry have played at the left tackle position at some point in their careers. The group is solid and coordinated, and they rarely get beat off the snap.


Advantage: Buccaneers


Pick: Unfortunately, Tampa's matchup against the Eagles is their worst nightmare, no matter what they say to protest this notion. Philadelphia will stuff the Buccaneers' rushing attack, once again forcing Brad Johnson to make plays from the pocket with a blitz krieg in his face.


On the other side of the ball, the Eagles will stay patient, waiting for the right opportunity to hit on a couple of big plays in the passing game. Once Philadelphia grabs a big enough lead, they'll wear out Tampa Bay's front four by running the ball right up the middle, as the have in the past.


Eagles- 19


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