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Game Preview: Eagles-Buccaneers

What better way to prepare Nick Foles for the spotlight of being a starting NFL quarterback than by, well, putting him under the bright Florida sun against a team that very much needs a win to continue their playoff hopes? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit 6-6, one of four NFC teams a game behind the Seattle Seahawks for the second Wild Card spot. The final four-game stretch is especially important for the Bucs because all four of their final games come against NFC teams, and their current 3-5 NFC record will need some sprucing up for playoff tiebreakers' sake.

The Bucs are an interesting team in their first year under new head coach Greg Schiano. Their defense is a picture of opposites as they rank first in the league in run defense and dead last in pass defense. On offense, third-year quarterback Josh Freeman has looked good now that he's got dynamic rookie running back Doug Martin and free-agent import wide receiver Vincent Jackson in tow. They've also played to their schedule almost week-to-week. None of their wins have come against teams with a winning record on the season, and only one of their losses (to the New Orleans Saints) came against a team with a losing record.

The Eagles, of course, fit in the former category at 3-9. But though the team is mired in an eight-game losing streak, there have been signs of life of late for the Eagles, namely in the form of their rookie backfield of Nick Foles and Bryce Brown. Foles turned in his best performance of the season (three starts and four games with extended playing time) last week against the Dallas Cowboys when he threw for 251 yards and a touchdown on 22-of-34 passing for a season-best quarterback rating of 96.6. A day later, Foles was named as the starting quarterback for the rest of the season by head coach Andy Reid.

Brown, meanwhile, just nonchalantly ran for a combined 347 yards in his first two career starts, the second highest two-game total in Eagles history behind only Steve Van Buren's 379 yards in 1949. Brown, though, has also fumbled the ball away three times in those two games, so he'll need to be extra wary of ball security against a Buccaneers team that is tied for sixth in the league with a +11 turnover differential. Defensively, the focus will be on a defensive line that has a new steward in Tommy Brasher after the dismissal of Jim Washburn earlier in the week. As a result, expect second-round pick Vinny Curry to get more than the 10 snaps he played last week against the Cowboys.

Last Time They Met: Oct. 11, 2009 - Eagles 33-14

In Philadelphia, Donovan McNabb returned from a rib injury to throw for 264 yards and three touchdowns - two to Jeremy Maclin - to pace the Eagles in the lopsided win. McNabb's 157.2 quarterback rating was the second-highest of his career. The Eagles improved to 11-0 in games after the bye week under head coach Andy Reid. The game also marked the return of middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter for the Eagles.

Tale Of The Tape (2012 Stats)
Eagles Buccaneers
Record 3-9 6-6
Points Scored Per Game 18.1 (29th in NFL) 27.8 (4)
Total Yards Per Game 362.6 (12) 360.4 (14)
Rushing Yards Per Game 133.6 (9) 117.5 (11)
Passing Yards Per Game 229 (17) 242.9 (12)
Points Allowed Per Game 26.7 (26) 23.8 (19)
Total Yards Allowed Per Game 351.5 (17) 391.8 (30)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game 117.9 (19) 82.3 (1)
Passing Yards Allowed Per Game 233.6 (16) 309.4 (32)
Turnover Ratio -18 (31) +11 (7)

When The Eagles Have The Ball

Will Bryce Brown be able to maintain his success from the first two games against the league's No. 1 run defense?

Brown's 347 yards in his first two career starts is the second-most by any Eagles running back in a two-game span. He is the first Eagles rookie with back-to-back multiple touchdown games and the second Eagles rookie to have back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.

The Buccaneers have an extremely fast and active front seven on defense. Former No. 3 overall draft pick Gerald McCoy anchors the line from the defensive tackle spot. Eagles fans are familiar with starting defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, a former third-round pick of the team. Michael Bennett leads the Bucs with 7.0 sacks on the season, but overall the team struggles with the pass rush. Tampa Bay is 30th in the league with 18 sacks.

Rookie second-round pick Lavonte David leads the Buccaneers from the weakside linebacker position with 108 tackles including 17 for loss. 2011 third-round pick Mason Foster has 79 tackles, 12 for loss, two sacks and an interception from the middle linebacker spot. Foster will be a player to watch as the Bucs mix in the Tampa 2 zone defense where Foster will be responsible for covering the deep middle of the field.

On the ground, the Bucs have allowed just 82.3 yards per game. In the past five games, rushers have averaged 4.0 yards per carry or less in each individual game. Brown has averaged 6.5 yards per carry this season and 8.1 yards per carry in the past two games. It will be an interesting matchup to see the speed of the Bucs' front seven battling the athletic Eagles' offensive line.

As good as the rushing defense has been for Tampa Bay, it's been the opposite for the pass defense which ranks dead last in the league allowing an average of 309.4 yards per game which is good news for starting quarterback Nick Foles. The lack of a pass rush has hurts, although the Bucs have a knack for making quarterbacks pay for mistakes with 17 interceptions which is the fourth-highest total in the NFL.

Longtime cornerback Ronde Barber, who will be forever reviled by Eagles fans for his role in the 2002 NFC Championship, moved to safety this season and has been paired with this year's first-round pick Mark Barron. The Buccaneers traded talented, but troubled, cornerback Aqib Talib to the Patriots and have E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson as their starting corners. Both of these players have good size for the position, but this will be a matchup that will favor Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Jason Avant.

Eagles Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
QB Nick Foles LDE Brandon Graham
RB Bryce Brown LDT Cullen Jenkins
FB Stanley Havili RDT Fletcher Cox
WR Jeremy Maclin RDE Trent Cole
LT King Dunlap WILL LB Akeem Jordan
LG Evan Mathis MIKE LB DeMeco Ryans
C Dallas Reynolds SAM LB Mychal Kendricks
RG Jake Scott LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
RT Dennis Kelly RCB Nnamdi Asomugha
TE Brent Celek SS Nate Allen
WR Jason Avant FS Colt Anderson

When The Buccaneers Have The Ball

Bucs offense has been impressive this season, especially considering the loss of Pro Bowl left guard, and free agent import, Carl Nicks halfway through the year. Couple with the preseason loss starting right guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs get extra credit. Donald Penn has been a rock at left tackle and is one of two Buccaneers offensive lineman to start every game this season, along with Jeremy Zuttah, who moved from center to left guard after Nicks' injury. As a unit, they've done an excellent job protecting Josh Freeman, who has only been sacked on 4.37 percent of his pass attempts, which ranks fifth in the league.

That protection has allowed Freeman time to get the ball downfield, especially to his primary weapon Vincent Jackson, who has already topped 1,000 yards on the season. Jackson has 50 catches for 1,014 yards on the year, which makes for an NFL-best 20.3 yards per catch. Considering some of the miscommunication in the secondary for the Eagles over the last few games, Jackson will be a primary focus. It will also be interesting to see whether the faster Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or the more physical Nnamdi Asomugha draws the primary assignment of covering the 6-5, 230-pound Jackson.

With coverage likely shading toward Jackson, don't sleep on Freeman's number two receiver, Mike Williams, who ranks 28th in the league with 718 receiving yards of his own. Longtime Indianapolis Colt Dallas Clark is Freeman's security blanket at tight end.

Then there's Doug Martin, who will be looking to top 100 yards rushing against an Eagles defense that is the only defense in the NFL this season yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. Martin has had a superlative rookie season, ranking third in the league behind only Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch with 1,106 rushing yards thus far. A late first-round pick, the "Muscle Hamster" is a compact ball of energy at 5-9, 223. The Eagles will need to rally to the ball as a team again Martin, who has broken many an arm tackle this season.

As for the Eagles defensive line, head coach Andy Reid said Monday that the defense will utilize the "wide-nine" moving forward only in certain situations, so the intrigue about what Todd Bowles' defense will look like in a post-Jim Washburn defense ranks high. Will the run defense be fortified with a more traditional front-four? Will any specific players benefit most from the change? We'll find out Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium.

Buccaneers Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
QB Josh Freeman LDE Michael Bennett
RB Doug Martin LDT Gerald McCoy
FB Erik Lorig RDT Roy Miller
WR Vincent Jackson RDE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim
LT Donald Penn WLB Lavonte David
LG Jeremy Zuttah MLB Mason Foster
C Ted Larsen SLB Adam Hayward
RG Jamon Meredith LCB E.J. Biggers
RT Demar Dotson RCB Leonard Johnson
TE Dallas Clark SS Mark Barron
WR Mike Williams FS Ronde Barber

Key Matchups

RB Bryce Brown vs. Buccaneers Run D

Rookie running back Bryce Brown has given Eagles fans quite a bit to cheer about in his first two NFL starts. He has been sensational, rushing for a combined 347 yards and four touchdowns. Brown's yardage in back-to-back games is the second-highest total ever by an Eagle, trailing only the great Steve Van Buren. Brown's rare blend of size and speed has makes him a difficult assignment for any defense, but he'll face his toughest challenge of the season this Sunday.

The Buccaneers have the best run defense in the league, averaging just over 82 yards per game on the ground. While those numbers are discouraging, the Cowboys were allowing 109.8 yards per game on the ground going into last Sunday's matchup against Brown and the Eagles. That didn't stop the rookie from picking up 169 yards and two touchdowns.

The major knock on Brown thus far has been his fumbles. In the last two games Brown has lost the ball three times, including a critical fourth quarter fumble which was returned for a touchdown by the Cowboys. If Brown can secure the ball and continue playing the way he has been, there is every reason to believe Brown can continue on his record-breaking pace.

Buccaneers WRs vs. Eagles CBs

The Buccaneers' youth movement gained a veteran presence on offense when the team signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency. After seven years in San Diego, the 6-5, 230-pound Jackson has 959 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He is on pace to break his personal yardage and touchdown records. On the other side is the speedy up-and-comer Mike Williams, who has 625 yards and five touchdowns this season.

Opposing them will be the tandem of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Eagles' secondary has been a significant disappointment this season. Over the last six weeks, the defense has allowed 16 touchdowns with no turnovers. Opposing quarterbacks have an average passer rating of 142.4 in that span. With the Eagles relieving defensive line coach Jim Washburn of his duties, it will be worth watching to see if defensive coordinator Todd Bowles changes the way he game plans. If the defense takes on a new look, the secondary may benefit. This would be a great help against a talented Buccaneers offense.

Players To Watch

RB Doug Martin

At the beginning of the season, the Rookie of the Year race was essentially a two-man contest between quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. But that was before Week 8, when Buccaneers running back Doug Martin exploded for 251 yards and four touchdowns against the Raiders.

While he may not be the most dynamic back in the NFL, Martin makes up for it with size, smarts and sheer production. Through 12 games, Martin is tied for third in the NFL with 1,106 yards and tied for second with nine rushing touchdowns. Despite their troubles on defense, the Eagles are the only team in the NFL that has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. The Eagles will look to continue that trend Sunday against Martin and a Buccaneers' rushing attack averaging 117.5 yards per game.

QB Nick Foles

There are two things that should give rookie quarterback Nick Foles a great deal of confidence going into Sunday's game. The first is that head coach Andy Reid named him the starter for the remainder of the year. The second is Tampa Bay's 32nd-ranked pass defense.

The Buccaneers are giving up an average of 309.4 passing yards per game while surrendering a league-worst 7.97 yards per completion. This bodes well for Foles, who appears to be finding a groove after the best of his three starts last Sunday. On Sunday against the Cowboys, Foles was 22-of-34 for 251 yards and a touchdown. But more importantly, Foles looked the part of a starting quarterback – he was patient with his throws, delivering timely strikes and distributing the ball to seven different receivers.

Foles has yet to throw more than one touchdown in a game, but that could very well change this week, as five quarterbacks have thrown three or more touchdowns against the Buccaneers. The Bucs defense is strongest against the run, so Foles may be called upon to take the next step and take control of the Eagles' offense.

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