It's strange to think the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL (the Eagles finished the regular season averaging 159.7 rush yards per game -- 10 yards more per game than the second-ranked Indianapolis Colts) largely neglected the ground game for a big chunk of the year, but those are the facts. From Weeks 1 through 6, Philadelphia rushed 132 times, which ranked 28th in the league. And that was with dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts at the controls, making that stat all the more unbelievable. The Eagles went through a four-week stretch where their running backs were averaging under nine carries a game.
The end of that stretch was Oct. 14 versus Tampa. Miles Sanders' one rush for one yard represented the only running back carry for Philly in the first half. The results were rather predictable: Quarterback Tom Brady and the Bucs dominated in time of possession (21:05 to 8:55) and total yards (233 to 73) while the Eagles managed to run just one play in opponent territory. Tampa went into the break up 21-7, grew the lead to 28-7 in the third quarter and held on to win 28-22.
Things ought to look much different when these two teams play again Sunday in the wild-card round of the playoffs (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
"As an offense, we've kind of revolutionized and evolved in terms of who we are, our identity," Hurts said. "Early on, we were kind of searching for who we were -- what we wanted to do, how we wanted to do it. We've fine-tuned some things and we've gotten good at doing a lot of different things."
Especially pounding the rock. From Week 7 on, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing attempts (418) and rush yards with a staggering 185 ground yards per game. They scored a rush TD in seven straight games to end the season, their longest streak since 2003 (15 straight), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The philosophical switch was hatched after their Thursday night game against the Bucs in Week 6. The coaching staff used the extra time before their next game against the Las Vegas Raiders to self-evaluate, and made the decision to dramatically change their offensive approach. Now they get to see if that change can lead to a different outcome against the defending Super Bowl champs.
"Looking at that last game, I feel like it's really not the same team we've got now," tight end Dallas Goedert said. "Players-wise, it's pretty similar, but the way we attack teams is completely different."
Goedert did not play in the first matchup after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Right tackle Lane Johnson also missed the game while addressing his mental health.
Hurts, who makes his playoff debut Sunday, had a tough day at the office in the passing game Week 6, going 12-of-26 for 115 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Bucs coach Bruce Arians was asked what he has seen out of the 23-year-old Hurts since that time.
"Dramatic improvement," he said. "Total command of the offense. Really accurate down the field. He's really improved as a passer. He knows when to pull it down and he knows when to throw it, so I've seen great growth out of him."
True: Vita Vea is a hotel.— Paul Hembekides (@PaulHembo) January 13, 2022
Also true: the Buccaneers allow 5.2 yards/rush on attempts not up the middle. That ranks 29th in the NFL.
The Eagles can get 200.
On paper, it will be strength on strength Sunday, with Philadelphia's top-rated rushing attack going against a Tampa defense that finished third against the run (92.5 yards per game). However, the Bucs have allowed eight 100-yard games this season compared to four in 2020, and have been susceptible of late on the outside.
Tampa linebacker Lavonte David is trying to return from a sprained foot, and the Bucs' secondary, which was missing safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and others in the first game against the Eagles, should be in better shape. But the Eagles' offense will provide a bigger test now that it has found the right formula.
"Just good discipline," said Arians, of what's necessary to be successful against the Eagles. "That's the problem when you have read-option quarterbacks and all the RPOs [run-pass options] that go off of it -- it's not just stopping the run, it's stopping the RPOs also. You've got to have great discipline and you've got to really tackle well, because whoever has the ball in their hands for Philly is very dangerous."