Fletcher Cox, defensive line must be great for Eagles to beat Buccaneers

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There are plenty of exciting matchups in this Sunday’s Eagles vs. Buccaneers Wild Card matchup.

Darius Slay vs. Mike Evans. Jalen Hurts vs. Tom Brady. Rob Gronkowski vs. whoever the Eagles send to try to cover him.

As interesting as those matchups are, however, this game (like all NFL games) will be decided in the interior along the offensive and defensive line. Most weeks this season the Eagles have been able to go into the game feeling confident about their matchups on the inside. It is a big reason, especially on the offensive side of the ball, why they are playing in the postseason.

That won’t be the case against Tampa Bay.

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Tampa Bay enters the playoffs with one of the best set of offensive/defensive lines among the teams still playing. The Eagles, at least on the offensive side of the ball, are certainly right there with them. The Eagles offensive line has proven this season they can win their matchup against any defensive line. It is safe for the Eagles to feel confident about their offensive line going up against the Buccaneers defensive line.

To upset the Buccaneers, however, the Eagles are going to need an underperforming defensive line to step up and deliver against a very good Buccaneers offensive line.

Let’s take a look at what they are going up against.

The Buccaneers, simply put, have arguably the best offensive line in football. Here is how their offensive linemen graded out this season, according to Pro Football Focus:

Buccaneers Offensive Line:
LT: Donovan Smith (11th overall, 6th in pass)
LG: Ali Marpet (7th overall, 7th in pass)
C: Ryan Jensen (12th overall, 20th in pass)
RG: Alex Cappa (14th overall, 22nd in pass)
RT: Tristan Wirfs (6th overall, 8th in pass)

As you can see, each starter on their line finish in the top half of the league at their positions, with two finishing inside the top 10. Guard Alex Cappa is the player on the roster that has given up over two sacks, with both tackles finishing the season giving up a combined three sacks in 1,580 snaps.

Overall they were ranked as the No. 1 pass-blocking offensive line in NFL, and the 14th run-blocking offensive line. Of course part of that is aided by Brady, who averaged just 2.38 seconds to throw it this season, the 2nd fastest in NFL.

Usually, even going up against a great offensive line, most would feel good about the Eagles’ defensive line still getting pressure. It is a unit Howie Roseman and the Eagles have invested a ton in over the years. This season, however, they have been a bit of a disappointment.

Pro Football Focus ranks the Eagles as having the sixth-best pass rush in the NFL, but the team finished the regular season 31st in the NFL in sacks. While they have done a decent job getting to the quarterback (11th in hurries), they are 22nd in the NFL with a pressure on the quarterback on just 24% of drop backs.

To get after Brady the Eagles are going to need their front four to play better than they have this season. Blitzing Brady is not the answer. He picks blitzes apart, like he did in the team’s first matchup. The Eagles are going to need their defensive line to get to Brady by winning their one-on-one matchups.

The good news for the Eagles is that they have seen improved performances from their linemen over the last month of the season. Here is what their top defensive linemen have done over their last four games (not including season finale vs. Dallas)

Sweat: 3.5 sacks, 8 QB pressures
Cox: 2.5 sacks, 8 QB pressures 
Hargrave: 0.5 sacks, 6 QB pressures 
Barnett: 0 sacks, 3 QB pressures 

Needless to say, the Eagles would like to see more production out of Hargrave and Barnett. The play of Cox and Sweat, however, is extremely encouraging. The duo have gotten better as the season has gone on and are playing their best football heading into the playoffs.

This season the Eagles have invested $30.9 million in their defensive line, sixth-most in the NFL.

They are going to need to get a better return on investment on Sunday than what they have gotten this season to beat Tampa Bay.

You can reach Eliot Shorr-Parks on Twitter at @EliotShorrParks or email him at esp@94wip.com