The Tampa Bay Buccaneers let the Eagles hang around for far too long, and learned the true meaning of the cliché “Any Given Sunday”.
The game began in the most boring of fashions, with punts dominating the first quarter. The Buccaneers were completely dominating the Eagles offensive line, and did not allow the Eagles offense to get started. Gerald McCoy was getting great penetration and made a handful of impact plays early.
The Bucs seemed to gain control of the game after the half, getting Doug Martin more involved and continuing to play well on defense. Vincent Jackson got many of his 131 yards in the second half as he lived up to his #1 receiver status, and gave the Bucs the lead with the second TD thrown by Freeman. Connor Barth would add a field goal, and Doug Martin would get on the scoreboard as well, and at 21-10, the Buccaneers seemed well on their way to a much-needed victory to maintain playoff position.
It was then that the wheels fell off, and the Buccaneers demons came back to haunt them. Nick Foles, who had over 300 yards passing on the day, led the Eagles down the field using Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant, and found Clay Harbor, deputizing for the concussed Brent Celek, for a touchdown to make a once out-of-reach 21-10 fourth quarter defecit now only 21-16. A two-point conversion would fail, and with only about four minutes left, the Buccaneers had a chance to keep the Eagles off the field for good and ice the victory.
Doug Martin had a great first down run, and the Eagles began to use their timeouts. However, on second and seven, Ted Larsen was called for holding as a pulling guard on a run play to Doug Martin, and the Bucs were unable to convert a first down.
The Eagles got the ball back, and with no timeouts, Nick Foles gathered up the confidence and skill of his NFC East QB brethren, and led the Eagles down the field. One of the bigger moments on the drive was a 4th and 1 conversion where Foles had no options and a collapsing pocket, and was forced to scramble and used his legs to good effect, barely getting the needed yardage, and then spiking the ball to stop the clock. The Bucs committed yet another costly mistake on the spike play, as Daniel Te’o-Neshiem was caught trying to substitute and was the 12th man on the field. This is the second week in a row that 12 men on the field would cost the Bucs a shot at victory. (Why the defense needed to substitute on a spike play is worth pondering, as this could prove to be a coaching error rather than confusion amongst the players)
The play of the game, for either team, was Nick Foles 25 yard strike to Jason Avant on 4th and 5 to set the Eagles up with a 2 seconds left opportunity at the end zone. Foles rolled right on a designed rollout, and arguably the best healthy player on the Eagles offense, Maclin, was wide open, having gotten separation. Foles threw a strike that led the receiver to the ground, and while it was close to the boundary, the receiver had a well-deserved game winning score.
Foles is undeniably the player of the game, his 400 total combined yards and 3 touchdowns were the entirety of the Eagles offense, as dynamic running back Bryce Brown was held to 6 yards on 12 carries, and the Eagles eventually abandoned him, allowing Dion Lewis to play on several drives in the second half. The Buccaneers of the game were Jackson, who provided Josh a target that he struggled to miss, and Gerald McCoy, who continues to show that he can be the foundation of a great defense, if healthy.
I believe most of the blame needs to go to Josh Freeman. While the pass defense was lacking, this is nothing new and should be expected considering the lack of talent in the defensive backfield. Nick Foles has had time to grow into the Eagles offense, and given the opportunity to learn the Bucs vulnerabilities, he took advantage and posted very impressive numbers, and showed poise on the final drive. Freeman, on the other hand, has been involved in the insufferable “elite QB” discussion most TV and radio experts love to have, yet failed to show any level of competence in the first half. He showed frustration, and a lack of composure, and even as he found a bit of a rhythm, he had already given the Eagles too much ground in the tug-of-war. He finished with an awful 14 for 34 completions to attempts line, and despite the 2 TD’s and no turnovers, he let his defense down in what could have been their best effort in over a month. A couple of first down conversions in the first half, or even a score, could have turned the tides.
Whatever blame is left over needs to go to the penalties. The Buccaneers had 8 penalties, compared to 2 for the Eagles. Ted Larsen’s aforementioned holding call being maybe the most costly of them all, as it prevented the Buccaneers from putting the game away on third and short. The fact that Ted Larsen is on the field speaks to the injuries that have devastated the Buccaneers this season, but also shows why this is not a playoff team. Injuries will affect every team (See: Eagles, Philadelphia), and good teams will be able to cope with loss. The Buccaneers are too young and shallow to deal with injuries, and having practice squad level players on the field in key situations can lead to boneheaded mistakes and costly penalties.
Hopefully this puts to bed any discussion of the Buccaneers as a playoff contender, and allows the staff to focus on development of a truly complete team. Pass defense, mental errors, and consistency in the passing game on offense continue to be the difference between success and failure for the Buccaneers, and these are areas that can hopefully be addressed moving forward.
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