There isn't much to say about Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady that hasn't already been said. The guy has won seven Super Bowls. He's been in the league since 2000. Nothing a defense can do is going to fool Brady, so gimmicks and gadgets need not apply. They won't work.
What works is playing wall-to-wall sound, fundamental defense and even then Brady usually gets his with a Buccaneers offense that ranked first in the NFL in passing offense and second in the league in points scored, total offense, third-down offense, and red zone offense. The Eagles saw plenty of Brady back in Week 6 when they hosted the Bucs and limited Tampa Bay to just seven second-half points, produced an interception, nearly had a second pick, did a good job against the running game (102 yards on 31 Tampa Bay attempts), and still ... Brady completed 34 of 42 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns, compiling a passer rating of 102.1.
"He's the commander. He does everything for them," said linebacker T.J. Edwards, who played 24 snaps and recorded four tackles in that October 14 game at Lincoln Financial Field. "You could feel, at first, his presence and everything like that, but at the end of the day we've got a job to do and that's to make him as uncomfortable as we can. I know everyone is really excited to go out there. You want to play the best and playing the best in the first round of the playoffs is awesome and we're really excited about the challenge."
Jonathan Gannon's defense did some good things in the first meeting between the teams – forcing four three-and-out series, taking the football away once on the interception, and generally keeping the Eagles in the game. But there were things that, as Edwards said, the Eagles would like to "clean up," and that includes two Tampa Bay 75-yard touchdown drives to open the game, two more long drives (72 and 78 yards) that ended in touchdowns, and a 12-play, 52-yard drive that consumed the final 5:52 off the game clock to end the Thursday night contest.
Round 2 is Sunday and Gannon is well aware of the challenges against an offense that won't have wide receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin (who combined for 14 receptions, 136 yards, and a touchdown the first time around) but will have tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was injured in October.
"We've got to be ready for everything," Gannon said. "It's going to be a big-time challenge."
Gannon explained more deeply, discussing how the defending Super Bowl Champion Bucs have "adjusted and adapted" with new personnel on the field, praising the timing, spacing, continuity, and precision of the routes and the marriage of the concepts in Tampa Bay's passing attack and, of course, noting the Brady Factor in all of this. Gannon referred to Brady as a "trained killer" on the football field for good reason.
All of which means the Eagles are going to challenge every bit of the Tampa Bay offense with a defense that has evolved for the better since that Week 6 game. Edwards, for one, is the starter at middle linebacker and he's been all over the football in the second half of the season. The secondary has improved with the insertion of a healthy Rodney McLeod into the starting lineup. The players know what Gannon wants from them and Gannon knows what the players can do for him.
"Looking back at that game and seeing how far we've come from that game in October to now, it's awesome to see how we've evolved, and the growth we've had and the connection as a team and our chemistry on defense. You saw our play pick up later in the year. We're a different team than we were in October and so are they," Edwards said. "That's the exciting part. We're both at our best right now and we'll see who comes out on top."
Gannon used the word "execution" to describe the reason for his defense's improvement through the season – every phase. This is a different kind of test, as everyone knows.
That's what makes the matchup so tantalizing, so challenging, so exciting. The Eagles aren't going to back down. Quite the contrary: They want to see what they've got against one of the game's best-ever players and an offense that is the total package.
"I would say just from a global offensive perspective, the timing of their routes are very, very, very good," Gannon said. "The distribution of their concepts is very good. The ball, obviously, comes out extremely fast, it's on time. And in the passing game, just like on defense, you got to have all 11 executing at a high level. You see whoever's out there for them, they all execute at a very high level. Their offensive line is very good, they have a lot of continuity with their offensive line. Tom is on the same page with all the receivers and the backs. They know how to adjust their routes based off coverage. When they call certain concepts, the spacing is spot on, the timing is spot on, and they execute at a high level. Their technique within that is very good.
"So, that's what sticks out on the tape more than the people. We know have they have weapons all over, but it's the same page and the continuity and the execution level is very high."
The key to getting the best of Brady, then? It's something few defenses are able to do, but it has been done.
"Get him out of his comfort zone a little bit," Gannon said. "He typically has success versus most people, but I do think that we've got to be able to get him a little bit out of rhythm with the different tools that we have to do that."