The challenge for the Philadelphia Eagles here is a tall one: upset a 4-1 team coming off a stellar performance, and do it on a short week of practice. Defensively, they’ll take on the best quarterback to ever play in Tom Brady. Offensively, they’ll run into the teeth of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL (45.8 yards per game, a whopping 30 yards better than the next best). On paper, it shapes up to be a huge hill to climb, but one the Eagles need to overcome, lest they fall further behind a Dallas Cowboys team out to a commanding NFC East lead.
Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Eagles play host to the Bucs:
- Buc stops up front. While the aforementioned Bucs run defense has teeth, the secondary is looking all gums. Injuries have decimated this unit like no other defensive backfield in the NFL, with cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis shelved for now and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. working through concussion protocols. CB Jamel Dean is back from a knee ailment and played very well in his return last week, teaming with Richard Sherman, who was signed after Week 3 to stop the bleeding. It’s on the Bucs’ talented pass rushers to mask struggles in the back end. The same week the club inked Sherman, coach Bruce Arians called out that pass rush, which has since responded with seven sacks in its last two games.
- Eagles must fly early. Eagles QB Jalen Hurts can ill afford the slow start he got off to last week if he hopes to keep pace with the Bucs’ potent offense. Philadelphia slept through its game against Carolina for more than a half before pulling its season from the flames for the win, and Hurts was sleepy, too, with just 74 passing yards at the half. If the Bucs run defense holds to form and shuts down the zone-read game and designed QB runs (Hurts leads Philly in rushing with 256 yards), he’ll need to light up the vulnerable Bucs secondary from the outset. He’s by far the most elusive quarterback the Bucs defense has faced this season, and he’s got a knack for making big plays off-schedule. A few early highlights could energize the home crowd for the duration.
- Tales from the trenches. There won’t be a more watch-worthy matchup on the line of scrimmage than Eagles DT Javon Hargrave operating against Bucs center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet. Hargrave is in the midst of a breakout season in Philadelphia, allaying concerns about Fletcher Cox’s slow start. In five games, he’s already notched a career-high nine QB hits, and his six sacks are just half a sack off his career best. He’s blowing up pockets at a prolific rate for an interior rusher. Jensen and Marpet have allowed just one sack between them this season, per Pro Football Focus.
- Tom Thumb’s Blues. Brady has said not to worry about a thumb injury he sustained when he rapped his throwing hand on Christian Wilkins’ helmet as he followed through on a second-quarter throw Sunday against the Dolphins. Indeed, he stayed in the game long enough to torch the Miami defense and is apparently no worse for the wear this week. Still, the last thing the G.O.A.T. needs is to aggravate it, and the QB throwing motion finding incidental contact is neither freakishly uncommon nor without risk -- just ask Russell Wilson. It’s the interior pass rush, rather than edge pressure, that tends to interfere with a clean delivery. Brady no doubt would appreciate the space to step up this week without Hargrave and Cox pushing within arm’s reach.