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Rushing Attack is One Key to Beating Buccaneers

The Eagles have the top-ranked running game, something has evolved since the teams met in Week 6, and Tampa hasn't been as good at stopping it lately
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It didn’t seem to matter that the Eagles lined up a rookie and a practice squad player against the Cowboys behind on offensive line that didn’t have any starters and still did boffo damage.

Kenny Gainwell ran for 78 yards and Jason Huntley for 51 as the Eagles put up 149 yards on the ground in spite of a 51-26 loss with its backups against the Cowboys' first string.

Nick Sirianni said he is hopeful that Miles Sanders could return Sunday (1 p.m.) from a broken hand when the Eagles play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC's Super Wildcard Weekend at Raymond James Stadium.

“We're hopeful for him,” said the coach on Monday. “We’re hopeful for Jordan (Howard) this week and Boston (Scott) and Kenny. So, I think we'll have our full stable of backs and really excited about where our backfield is. I think a lot of teams in this league would like the depth we have at this position.”

One of the keys to this playoff matchup will be the Eagles’ running game vs. a Tampa Bay defense that ranks third in the league in stopping the run.

The Bucs, though, haven’t done as good of a job of that, however, since Week 7, when they were the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense. Since then, they have been just the 15th best.

“We haven’t done a good job the last two weeks,” said TB coach Bruce Arians on Sunday. “Everybody is trying to go wide on us…We have to do a better job setting edges.”

Arians said the team has missed linebacker Lavonte David, who has been out for a few weeks with a foot injury and, the coach said, isn’t sure if he will return on Sunday.

Others who have missed significant time recently, such as DE Jason Pierre-Paul, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, and running back Leonard Fournette should be good to go Sunday, he added.

“I think (the run defense slippage) is a combination of things,” Arians said. “Lavonte, his calming influence as a leader, and just missed tackles, We missed some tackles on the edge we can’t miss because they always end up big gainers...We have to tackle better.”

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Getting Sanders would be a big boost for the Eagles since he’s very quick at getting to the edge, perhaps their best runner at doing so.

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Also, Jalen Hurts should be healthier after sitting out Week 18.

In the Bucs’ 28-22 Week 6 win, Hurts and Sanders were the only two to carry the ball for the Eagles, gaining 100 yards combined.

The Eagles are more diverse in their rushing attack now.

Meanwhile, the Bucs will play without WRs Antonio Brown, who has been booted from the team after refusing to go in when asked two weeks ago but gave Philly fits in the win with nine catches for 93 yards and a TD, and Chris Godwin, who is out for the season and had five catches for 43 yards in the game against the Eagle on Oct. 14.

“We're both different teams than we were in Week 6,” said Sirianni. “There is no doubt about that, and so that's what we're working through now. We're working through more so on first and second down now, so look forward to seeing how they're different in third down and red zone. But that's the nature of the NFL. Unfortunately, guys go down with injuries, and the next guy has to step up.

Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians

Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians

“What I see in this team is they're well-coached and the next guy is ready to step up. I really believe that with this Tampa team that we're playing, that the guys that are coming into their place have been coached well and they're ready to go because they're good players, too. 

"But there’s no doubt they're different, but they also have stability obviously at the quarterback position with one of the best players to ever play this game.”

Tom Brady completed 34-of-42 passes for 297 yards at Lincoln Financial Field in the first matchup while Hurts was 12-for-26 with just 115 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, to go along with 44 yards on 10 runs.

“The first half I thought we handled really, really well,” said Arians, whose team led 21-7 at the half then extended it to 28-7 before the Eagles rallied.

“The second half was more the offense not staying on the field and giving them too many opportunities, then they started popping some runs, (Hurts) started making some plays with his legs. 

"(Carolina QB) Sam Darnold hurt us a little with his legs (in Sunday’s regular-season finale) and Jalen’s a lot faster. He presents a lot of problems. He’s thrown it well, obviously all the read options and RPOs they do, it’s a different style offense. It’s going to take a helluva concerted effort on everybody being disciplined and tackling well.”

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.