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Eagles Need Top-Ranked Ground Game to Get Going Against 'Special Player'

It's strength vs. strength with the Eagles' ground game against Tampa Bay's Vita Vea-fueled run defense

PHILADELPHIA - On paper, it's strength vs. strength.

The Eagles' top-ranked rushing attack against the stingy Tampa Bay run defense.

Nick Sirianni's offense finished the season averaging 159.7 yards per game on the ground despite the fact that Jalen Hurts, the vaunted plus-one in the rushing attack and Philadelphia's leading rusher on the season with 784 yards, was not 100 percent for the final month of the season.

That's something the Eagles tried to remedy by letting the first-year starting QB sit out what was essentially a meaningless regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.

Conversely, the Bucs, led by massive defensive tackle Vita Vea, led the NFC in rushing defense, allowing only 92.5 yards per contest.

The Eagles ran through some of the other top defensive units during a historic stretch in which they became the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to pile up 175-or-more yards on the ground in seven consecutive games.

Philadelphia's ability to run the football seems to be at the forefront of a lot of minds in Central Florida right now.

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"We haven't done a good job in the last two weeks because everybody is trying to go wide on us and stay away from those big guys in the middle," Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said when asked about how his defense matches up with the Birds' rushing attack. "We just have to do a better job of setting edges."

While first in the NFC is nice because of the presence of Vea, perhaps the best pure run-stuffer in the game, expectations are always high for the reigning Super Bowl champions when it comes to halting the ground game and any chink in the armor is noticed.

"I think it's a combination of things," Arians said when asked why Tampa fell from the top spot in the NFL. "I think a bigger part of it is Lavonte [David] also with just his calming influence as a leader out there. And just missed tackles – we've missed some tackles out on the edges that we can't miss because they always end up as big gainers."

David, the Bucs' top linebacker, suffered a foot injury against New Orleans in Week 15 and was designated to return from injured reserve on Wednesday, a clear indication Tampa plans to get him back at some point during its playoff run and the only guarantee of that is if David is activated for Sunday.

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Also helping is the return of edge rusher Shaq Barrett, a player who like his counterpart on the other side, Jason Pierre-Paul, is best known for his ability as a pass rusher but also impacts things in run support.

"They both do a good job with it. For me, it's having them all fresh for the run and the pass," Arians explained. "To have that four-man rotation, five with Cam Gill – it's just veteran players play differently than younger players. They never panic, so getting all of those guys back I think will help the run defense tremendously."

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Also aiding the cause will be Todd Bowles, the savvy Tampa Bay defensive coordinator, who will often use a five-man front if needed and is not afraid to throw different looks to confuse young QBs like Hurts.

"I think he does a good job with his scheme," offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said of Bowles. "You look at their front guys, it starts up front with Vita Vea and [DL Ndamukong] Suh and Shaquil and Pierre-Paul and then you got [LB Devin] White and David in the middle. That's a heck of a group right there.

"They're tough, they're physical, and their scheme is really good, and he does a heck of a job. He's a really good defensive coordinator and puts his guys in position to make plays."

Eagles star center Jason Kelce also mentioned Bowles, who was once the Eagles' interim DC in 2012, Kelce's second season in the Philadelphia locker room.

"He's a very, very good defensive coordinator, a leader who has great knowledge for the game and you can tell they are very, very well-coached," Kelce noted when discussing the Bucs' defense. "They are very well-coordinated. They understand what they are trying to do."

Vea, who recently signed a big-money extension, remains the foundation for Tampa's run support, though, and a player who Kelce admitted is a rare breed.

"He's enormous, he's fast and he's smart," Kelce said. "Those are three characteristics you don't want any defensive tackle to have. ... Most defensive tackles - really players [in general] - are one-dimensional. They are either really quick, really fast, They are really big or kinda nothing and just good [or] okay at everything.

"That's when you get tremendous players. When they have all of these attributes combined where they have enough quickness and enough suddenness to get on your edge but they also have enough power and enough strength to run right through you. You can't take away any one thing of [Vea's] game without exposing another thing you're vulnerable to. That's what makes him a special player."

-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.