The Philadelphia Eagles 2015 regular season football schedule continues this week with a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Eagles can get back to .500 with a win at home. In preparation for this weekend, I reached out to our friends over at Bucs Nation. Sander Philipse kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming matchup. Let's take a look at the answers.
1) Jameis Winston ranks near the bottom of the league in completion percentage and passer rating. To what extent are you satisfied with his growth as a rookie and how do you expect him to perform against this Eagles defense?
Winston has looked like the number one pick in the draft, and also like a rookie. That is to say: he shows the ability to make some ridiculous throws, he has games where he's outstanding throughout, and he's displayed a good understanding of both his scheme, and opposing defenses. He's a quintessential pocket quarterback who does a good job of handling pressure, navigating the pocket and finding open receivers. He's aggressive, but he hasn't made a lot of overly risky throws over the past months, though he could stand to be a little more aggressive in the red zone. If we look at different statistics than completion percentage and passer rating, he looks pretty decent as well -- especially in yards per attempt and those derived from it.
Winston also hasn't been helped by injuries to his receiving corps, with Mike Evans being the only healthy, reliable receiver over the past three weeks -- and Evans leads the league in drops. Overall, Winston is on track to be the Bucs' franchise quarterback, and he has the talent to eventually turn into a top five quarterback in the NFL. He's still a ways removed from that status, obviously, but his play has been very encouraging.
2) Let's talk about Lovie Smith. Do you think he's the the long-term answer in Tampa Bay?
That's really tough to say. Obviously, leading the team to the worst record in the league last year is a very tough pill to swallow, and fans have been very critical of him this year as a result -- deservedly so. The Bucs seemed to find ways to lose last year, and nearly every offseason move the Bucs had made to construct the team to his specifications backfired. But this year we've seen genuine progress. Jameis Winston has been promising, the offensive line has been reconstructed, and the team is finding ways to win close games. At the same time, the defense -- Lovie Smith's area of expertise -- has been an absolute disaster through the first half of the season, though there are signs of improvement the last couple of weeks. The defense's constant communication errors were most disconcerting, as the frequency suggested coaching problems -- that just can't happen when you have a defense filled with veterans, led by a veteran coaching staff.
So it's difficult to be definitive right now. Smith will likely get a third year, assuming the Bucs win at least a couple more games, but he's going to have to prove that he can actually produce the kind of defensive effort he was known for in Chicago. So far, we've rarely seen that. If he can get back to doing that, I have enough confidence in Jameis Winston to say that Lovie Smith will have the kind of offense that he never had in Chicago: one that can actually help his defense win games.
3) The Eagles have really struggled on offense this season. Do you think the Buccaneers will have an easy time making those struggles continue?
Based on the last two games, I'd certainly say so. Based on the season as a whole, definitely not. The Bucs' pass defense has been incredibly inconsistent this year, but it seems Lovie Smith has finally found a winning combination of cornerbacks in Sterling Moore and undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah the last couple of weeks. They're not world-beaters, but they're at least doing their jobs -- which is more than we could say for those preceding them. That's allowed the Bucs to blitz a lot more, which in turn helps their anemic pass rush. One consistent factor: Tampa Bay's run defense has been consistently dominant.
To be clear, here: I don't rightly know the answer to this question. If the Bucs defense that came out the past two weeks shows up, the Eagles are going to struggle to get anything going. If the pass defense from the first six weeks or so shows up, they'll be able to cut through the secondary with ease.
4) Can you name one matchup that really favors the Eagles and one that really favors the Buccaneers?
I'd say that despite his drops, Mike Evans versus anyone is a matchup that really favors the Bucs. Yes, he's struggled with his hands this year, but he's also gotten a lot better as a route runner and consistently finds a way to get open. Even in games where he struggles with drops, he still manages to easily top 100 receiving yards. The Bucs need him to be this good because every other receiving weapon is injured, but he keeps producing week in, week out.
As for a matchup that really favors the Eagles, I'd say Zach Ertz against the Bucs' inability to cover the middle of the field. Even with the defensive improvement over the last couple of weeks, the Bucs have real trouble defending the middle of the field -- in part because rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander seems to be largely incapable of dropping back deep in Tampa 2. Alexander has been pretty good overall, but that's been a major problem. Moreover, the Bucs don't have anyone who can cover tight ends consistently, especially with Lavonte David having a down year. Find Ertz early and often and the Eagles could have a lot of success on offense.
5) Who wins this game and why? Score prediction?
That's a tough one. I feel like these two teams are pretty evenly matched overall. Ultimately I'm going to go with my homerism and the better quarterback, which means the Bucs win, 20-17. This feels like a game that could be really sloppy with plenty of mistakes on both sides, but the Bucs have been pretty good at turning those games into wins this year.