Eagles-Buccaneers game: What to watch | Early Birds

Good morning. The Eagles have their last practice at 11:50 a.m. on Friday before flying to Tampa Bay on Saturday for Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers. Doug Pederson‘s news conference is at 10:30 a.m.

This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. If your friends haven’t subscribed, it’s free to sign up here to receive the newsletter in your inbox. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

Seven keys for the Eagles against the Bucs

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Eagles free safety Rodney McLeod waving his finger after a stop against the Oakland Raiders on , Dec. 25, 2017.

The Buccaneers exhibited a big-play offense last week with nine plays of 20 or more yards. Three of those were touchdown passes, including two to DeSean Jackson. The Eagles defense has emphasized stopping the big play this week, and not just because it was a big part of Tampa Bay’s offense. It was also because it was a weakness of the Eagles defense last week, with the Falcons totaling five plays of 20 or more yards. Malcolm Jenkins noted this as an area the Eagles must improve.

Tampa Bay has firepower at wide receiver with Jackson, Mike Evans, and Chris Godwin. Evans (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) is as imposing a wide receiver as there is in the NFL, and he’s topped 1,000 yards in all four of his NFL seasons. Jackson, who has plagued the Eagles since his unceremonious 2014 release, remains an elite deep threat. He was limited at practice Thursday while recovering from a concussion/shoulder injury. Godwin, a Penn State product, is a big part of Tampa Bay’s offense and scored a touchdown last week. The Eagles must be sound in coverage, and Rodney McLeod needs to cover ground as the deep safety. If you want to know how the Eagles defense did Sunday, check the longest plays after the game.

Force third and long, pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick

Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like an all-pro more than a journeyman last week, and he often played with a clean pocket. He was not sacked and was hit only twice. The Eagles defense is built around their defensive line, and that line must pressure Fitzpatrick more than the Saints did. It helped Fitzpatrick that the Bucs often had third-and-manageable situations. Ten of their 13 third downs were from six yards or fewer, a big reason they converted 62 percent of their third downs.

The Eagles must force the Bucs into more third and longs, allowing the pass rushers to get after Fitzpatrick. The Eagles had four sacks and 14 quarterback hits last week, and they’re good enough to have those types of numbers again. Three of the Eagles’ four sacks came when Atlanta had more than six yards to go, including two on third downs. That’s one way to make Fitzpatrick look more like a journeyman.

The Bucs’ wide receivers earn much of the praise, but they have a pair of tight ends who can cause damage, too. O.J. Howard (6-6, 251) and Cameron Brate (6-5, 241) are big threats in the passing game. The Eagles get back Nigel Bradham after a one-week suspension, so they’ll be better in the second level. The Eagles also like to use their safeties on tight ends and can play three-tight-end sets. But the linebackers and safety will play an important role in pass coverage. Howard and Brate each had six touchdowns last season.

It’s been said before, and it received more attention this week: Nick Foles is a hot-or-cold quarterback who is best when he can find an early rhythm. The Eagles coaches are committed to trying to aid Foles with their play-calling. Doug Pederson mentioned going with an up-tempo offense, and Mike Groh mentioned finding easy completions. The Buccaneers are vulnerable on defense – they allowed 40 points and 439 passing yards last week – so Foles should have opportunities. And if Foles gets hot, watch out. That’s when he looks like a high-level quarterback.

The Buccaneers placed starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves on injured reserve this week, and fellow starting cornerback Brent Grimes (a Philadelphia native) has missed time this week with an injury. Sunday could be a good time to finally hit on a deep pass after Mike Wallace went without a reception last week. But those deep shots will occur only if Foles finds an early rhythm. Foles led the Eagles to wins in Tampa Bay in 2012 and 2013.

Use the running backs in the passing game

If the Eagles are looking for one way to get some easy completions, they should target their running backs. The Buccaneers have talented linebackers (Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander), but they were vulnerable in the passing game last week. There aren’t many players like Saints running back Alvin Kamara, although his success (nine catches, 112 yards) against the Bucs defense can offer a recipe for the Eagles. If Darren Sproles plays – he missed time this week with a hamstring injury – he would be an ideal candidate to be used in that way. But Corey Clement also showed pass-catching ability late last year, and he could fill that role, too.

The Buccaneers invested in their defensive line this offseason, adding former Eagles Vinny Curry and Beau Allen and former Giant Jason Pierre-Paul. Still, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is the star. “He’s a guy that can wreck the game, so somebody that we got to pay special attention to,”  Groh said. Good thing the Eagles have Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks. The Brooks-McCoy duel will be one of the game’s best matchups. McCoy had two quarterback hits last week and a tackle for a loss.

A September visit to Tampa is different from a December visit. It’s going to be 91 degrees on Sunday, and the Eagles must be prepared for that type of heat. Pederson has spoken to the team about hydration, and the staff has been emphasizing it throughout the week.  ”Don’t let this weather pattern up here fool us where it’s cooler, it’s rainy, because it’s not going to be that way,” Pederson said.”It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be humid.” Pederson thought the Eagles were well conditioned in the season opener. This is the type of week in which their rotation is especially an asset.

DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Nick Foles lines up his mark during a practice.

What you need to know about the Eagles

3 Questions With | Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox celebrating after sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as defensive end Michael Bennett looks on. A penalty on the play was called on the Eagles.

Zach Berman: What did it mean to get voted captain for the first time in your career?

Cox: It means a lot to represent this team and this organization as one of the leaders. … To get respect from my teammates, I thank them for that. Obviously, they know I’m one of the leaders on the team. I’m not a big “rah-rah” guy. I lead more by example. And if I see someone doing something, I pull him to the side. I think this locker room’s got so much respect for me, and I’ve got so much respect for them.

ZB: As you said, you’re not the most vocal player. What do you do behind the scenes that fans should know?

FC: I think my work ethic. The way I work in practice. I don’t shy away from anything. They know I show up for practice every day and work. … I can see a guy doing something wrong, and I may pull that guy to the side — “Hey man, we don’t do things like that around here. Let’s try to correct that.” And those little words can encourage the next young guy who makes a mistake. It helps somebody and means a lot to them, to actually pull them to the side and not yell at them.

ZB: Was it a goal of yours to be a captain?

FC: You always want to be captain, want to be a leader. To get that “C” put on my jersey for the first time and actually be a captain, first time in my career except for high school. So that means a lot to me.

As mentioned above, stopping the deep ball will be a big part of this game. DeSean Jackson is a special player, although he had only two catches of more than 30 yards last season. He came back alive last week. He is dealing with a concussion and a shoulder injury and was limited in practice Thursday. But Eagles fans (and the Eagles) know full well what Jackson can do. He had 22 catches of 50+ yards for the Eagles, and he has four catches of 50+ yards against the Eagles. The Eagles will trust their cornerbacks on both sides and Rodney McLeod as the deep safety, but they’ll be aware of Jackson’s deep speed if Jackson plays.

DeSean Jackson has always been a guy that can take the top off the defense,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “We played him in a game two years ago, and he made a lot of big plays like that. Took us a while to get adjusted to it.”

I don’t think they are bad at drafting and developing receivers. Nelson Agholor was a first-round pick and is a big part of the offense who is going to keep getting better despite a slow start to his career. Jordan Matthews was a second-round pick, and he gave the Eagles three solid seasons. DeSean Jackson (a second-round pick) and Jeremy Maclin (a first-round pick) both developed into Pro Bowlers with the Eagles.

They haven’t found that late-round steal such as Antonio Brown and they missed on some elite receivers when they drafted other receivers, but I don’t think it’s been a noticeable problem like their difficulties in drafting safeties.

With that said, the Eagles need to hit on a receiver in the coming years. Mike Wallace is on a one-year deal, and Alshon Jeffery is in his age-28 season. Even if the Eagles keep Agholor long-term, wide receiver is a position they’ll address in the draft, unless someone such as Mack Hollins or Shelton Gibson develops into a reliable starter.

Yes, but expectations for Dallas Goedert must be kept in perspective. Only four rookie tight ends in NFL history have finished with more than 800 yards, and only one since 1988. It’s historically a position at which rookies aren’t major contributors. Add in the fact that Goedert is No. 2, behind Zach Ertz, and you shouldn’t expect a huge season. But he’ll be an offensive contributor as the year progresses, especially in the red zone.

Remember, Trey Burton had only 23 receptions last year as the No. 2 pass-catching tight end. Ertz had 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie in 2013, and he, too, was a second-round pick. If Goedert can get 30-35 receptions for nearly 400 yards and a few touchdowns, that would be a solid rookie campaign.

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