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How Tampa Bay Changed the Eagles' Season

A loss to the Bucs in Week 6 sent Nick Sirianni back to the drawing board

PHILADELPHIA - -The conventional wisdom is that the Eagles shifted gears after an ugly loss in Las Vegas when a number of veterans used the long plane ride home from Sin City to take personal stock on what was an ugly 2-5 start to the season.

Then came Nick Sirianni's now-famous "flower" motivational Ted Talk and the rest was history.

In reality, the team's offensive philosophical shift took place the week prior in what served as a mini-bye week after a 28-22 loss, a game that really wasn't that close, to Tampa Bay on Thursday, Oct. 14.

The game against the Bucs, Sunday's upcoming wild-card opponent for Philadelphia, served as a wake-up call for Nick Sirianni and how much he was putting on the shoulders of a first-time starting quarterback in Jalen Hurts, something the Eagles' coach has expressed behind the scenes.

After a 7-3 finish propelled the Eagles into the playoffs, Sirianni went on the record explaining the course change with Peter King of NBC.

“Sometimes, as a staff, you’ve got to swallow your pride and change course,” Sirianni admitted to King. "And since midseason, we’ve been one of the higher 12- and 13-personnel teams in the league. I can tell you, that really helped us.

"One way it helped was we didn’t have to put as much on Jalen (Hurts) with the running game performing so well.”

How high?

Take out the outlier of Week 18, a game sacrificed against Dallas in order to get as many key players as healthy as possible for the trip to Tampa, and the Eagles' have used 12 personnel (two tight ends) 30.0% of the time and 13P (three TEs) 13.4 percent since their 2-5 start vs. 12P of 19.9% and 13P of just 4.7% in the first seven games.

The demarcation line of Las Vegas seems obvious until you realize how the Eagles came out against the Raiders with a heavy dose of Mikes Sanders running the football before the RB1 was carted off in the second quarter with a high ankle sprain that cost him three games.

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The Eagles had already shifted but the positive results had a delayed start before kicking in against Detroit in the Motor City and in truth the seeds were laid against the Bucs when Sanders had a lot of success running the football over a smaller sample size.

Since the shift, the Eagles have run for 184.8 rushing yards per game, by far the top mark in the league and a sharp uptick from what was the 13th-ranked rushing attack up to that point.

Nothing should change against the Bucs this time even though Tampa defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has a one-man wall inside in the form of the 340-pound Vita Vea.

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"I think he does a good job with his scheme," said Eagles OC Shane Steichen on Tuesday, speaking about Bowles, a Temple product who once served as Philadelphia's interim DC in 2012.

"You look at their front guys, it starts up front with Vita Vea and [DL Ndamukong] Suh and [LB] Shaquil [Barrett] and [LB Jason] Pierre-Paul and then you got [LB Devin] White and [LB Lavonte] David in the middle. That's a heck of a group right there.

"They're tough, they're physical, and like you said, 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."

Ndamukong Suh (left) and Vita Vea will pose a challenge to Eagles' top-ranked running game in opening round of playoffs

Ndamukong Suh (left) and Vita Vea will pose a challenge to the Eagles' top-ranked running game in the opening round of the playoffs.

David has been out of the lineup recently with a foot injury and his availability for Sunday remains unclear.

Hurts' impact in the running game is paramount, the so-called plus-one who has been limited in that phase of the game since suffering a high-ankle sprain against the New York Giants on Nov. 28.

The Eagles held the QB out against Dallas in hopes of having him as close to 100% as possible against the Bucs.

"You think about our quarterback, he demands a lot of respect on the backside of things," Sirianni said. "So, we understand that one reason why we're a really good running team is because not only all the yards that Jalen contributes to the run game, but also the respect that he demands all over the field as a runner."

That in turn has opened up a more traditional play-action attack in the passing game that has been especially effective getting the football to emerging star tight end Dallas Goedert, who did not play in the first meeting between the teams.

"We've developed as a passing team with our play-action game and done really well on third downs in the red zone, so it's becoming more likely that teams have to stop both," said Sirianni. "So, they have to stop – we've been an explosive pass and an explosive run team, and so you have to pick your poison there."

With Hurts at an optimal level and both the run and pass in play without restriction, it becomes Sophie's Choice for defenses.

"It's not like they can – with the development that Jalen has went through this year with the receivers and the tight ends that we have, they can't sell out only to the run because we've become balanced and the passing game has developed as the year has went on," Sirianni said.

And the Eagles can thank Tampa Bay for spawning the change, something the Bucs hope doesn't come back to haunt them Sunday.

-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.