Jonathan Gannon doesn’t hesitate with one emphatic word when asked where the Eagles’ defense has improved the most since the first Tampa game.
When the Eagles and Buccaneers first met, back in October, the Eagles’ defense was struggling in all phases, and the Bucs took advantage, scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions on the way to a 28-22 win at the Linc.
It wasn’t really that close.
The Bucs piled up 399 net yards – they were over 400 before a few kneel downs at the end of the game – and Tom Brady was almost perfect, completing 34 of 42 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception).
Tampa also rushed for over 100 yards, amassed 27 first downs, converted 7 of 13 third downs and controlled the ball for 40 minutes.
A week later the Eagles lost to the Raiders, but over the next 10 weeks they were 4th in the NFL in points allowed (16.6), 3rd in yards allowed (288), No. 2 in rush defense (81 yards per game) and 8th in pass defense (206).
We’ll see Sunday in the rematch in Tampa in the wild-card round whether that improvement was genuine or just a product of who the Eagles were playing.
But Gannon believes his group has shown legitimate improvement in some key areas.
“All areas, honestly,” he said. “The run game, passing game, rush-and-cover, cover-and-rush, being in the right spots, winning our leverage side a little bit more,” he said Tuesday.
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“I've always thought we tackled pretty well. If you look at the (first) Tampa game, I don't think we tackled as well as we have in some other games. Some of that was them, some was us. We know to be in this game, our execution level has to be high.”
As much as the Eagles have improved, they still finished 30th in the NFL in sacks, 20th in interceptions and 26th in takeaways.
They’re only the second team since 1960 – as far back as Pro Football Reference researched unofficial sacks – to reach the playoffs with fewer than 30 sacks and fewer than 20 takeaways. The 2016 Lions also did it.
Meanwhile, the Bucs are best in the league allowing sacks (23 in 17 games), 10th in fewest interceptions and eighth in fewest turnovers.
How do you beat Tom Brady if you’re not very good at generating pressure or creating turnovers? In his career, Brady is 172-28 when he doesn’t throw an interception and 66-14 when he isn’t sacked. When he isn’t sacked or intercepted?
And the Eagles are among the worst in the NFL at both.
That’s the challenge facing the Eagles. It’s a big one.
“This guy, he's a trained killer and he knows how to play good offense and what he needs to do to keep his offense on track, so it's going to be a big-time challenge,” Gannon said.
“We know it’s very hard to get to him, but feel like we're up for the challenge and (have) some things that we're going to try to do. (We have to) get him out of his comfort zone a little bit. He typically has success vs. most people, but I do think that we got to be able to get him a little bit out of rhythm with the different tools that we have to do that.”