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5 questions Philadelphia Eagles must answer in NFL playoff game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Nick Sirianni press conference: Philadelphia Eagles head coach talks ahead of playoff game vs. TB
Nick Sirianni press conference: Philadelphia Eagles head coach talks ahead of playoff game vs. TB 17:17

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - This is not how the Philadelphia Eagles wanted to enter the postseason. Not only have the Eagles lost five of six games entering the playoffs, but they are the first team to start the season 10-1 and finish 1-5 since the 1986 New York Jets.

Philadelphia's last two losses were the worst of the season, falling at home to a then-three-win Arizona Cardinals team and getting blown out by a New York Giants team that had nothing to play for (and replaced six coaches after the game).

The Eagles are limping into the postseason, displaying little confidence they can not only win a playoff game, let alone repeat as NFC champions.

As Philadelphia prepares for its wild card playoff matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there are plenty of questions this team has to answer if it wishes to advance past the opening round of the playoffs.

1. Can the connection to A.J. Brown get going?

The Jalen Hurts connection to A.J. Brown over the second half of the season hasn't been as strong as the first half, part of the reason for the Eagles' offensive woes. Hurts had a 72.8% completion rate when targeting Brown in the first nine games, with six touchdowns to two interceptions (10.9 yards per attempt) and a 121.0 passer rating.

Over the last eight games, Hurts has completed just 59.0% of his passes targeting Brown with just one touchdown and two interceptions (6.8 yards per attempt) and a 72.2 passer rating. The Eagles averaged 26.1 points in the first nine games and 24.8 in the last eight, so Brown's lack of production in the offense has played a role.

Brown has 39 catches for 451 yards and one touchdown (11.5 yards per catch) in his last eight games. The Eagles have to get their best playmaker on offense involved more.

Brown's availability for Monday night's game remains in question after he suffered a knee injury last Sunday. The wideout didn't practice Thursday and the team has him listed as questionable.

2. Will the Eagles run the ball?

Philadelphia arguably had its most balanced game of the season against Tampa Bay in the Week 3 victory, rushing for 201 yards and passing for 271. The Eagles had a season-high 472 yards in the victory, running the ball 40 times and dropping back 38.

D'Andre Swift had his last 100-yard game that week (130 yards) as the Eagles averaged 5.0 yards per carry. To counter a team that blitzed the third most of any team in the NFL this season, running the ball is imperative. Philadelphia has run the ball 44.09% of the time over the last three games, a percentage that should increase to counter an aggressive Tampa Bay defense.

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3. Can the pass rush actually sack the quarterback?

The Eagles' pass rush was supposed to be the strength of the team, but it has been ineffective since Matt Patricia took over as the defensive play caller. Philadelphia was 12th in the NFL in pressure rate (37.8%) in the four games Patricia called the defense, but 29th in sack percentage (4.4%). The Eagles had just six sacks in the final four games.

Neither Haason Reddick nor Josh Sweat had a sack during that span, with defensive tackles Jalen Carter (two sacks) and Fletcher Cox (one sack) having three of those sacks.

The Eagles' pass rush has been disappointing this year - 14th in pressure rate (36.1%) and 24th in sack rate (6.2%). In the Week 3 win over Tampa Bay, Philadelphia only pressured on 28.6% of dropbacks yet had a sack rate of 7.4% (two sacks).

Baker Mayfield had just a 76.0 passer rating under pressure this year. The Eagles have to put pressure on him and make Tampa Bay one-dimensional.

4. How will the defense compensate for losing Sydney Brown?

The Eagles ran a lot of three-safety looks with Brown in the fold, playing Reed Blankenship and Kevin Byard up top with Brown rotating in coverage in "box-nickel" packages. Brown is lost for the season with a torn ACL, perhaps eliminating the "box-nickel" package with three safeties on the field.

Tristan McCollum or Mekhi Garner could get those snaps and replace Brown, but the two undrafted players have a combined 56 defensive snaps between them. With Avonte Maddox back in the slot, perhaps the Eagles rotate Kelee Ringo and Eli Ricks on the outside and put James Bradberry in the slot in certain packages this week.

Opposing quarterbacks targeting Bradberry had a 54.6 passer rating when he played the slot, as Bradberry allowed two of four completions for 26 yards in the Week 3 win against the Buccaneers. Bradberry could be in the mix for some slot reps again this week.

"You always have plans in place because you know those things can come up," Patricia said earlier this week. "Whether they're long term or short term, and you try to adjust and take a look at whether you can keep those packages, move on from them or somebody else go in those roles from that aspect or change them slightly, maybe give them a different look from that aspect of it."

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5. How will Eagles handle the blitz?

The blitz is going to be a major topic for Hurts and the Eagles this week. Not only does Tampa Bay blitz the third most of any team in the league, but Hurts has completed just 60.5% of passes when facing the blitz, with six touchdowns to eight interceptions for a 74.1 rating (28th in NFL).

Over the last six games, Hurts has completed just 56.3% of his passes against the blitz, with zero touchdowns and two interceptions (58.5 rating). He went five of 12 with an interceptions and a 16.3 passer rating in last week's loss to the Giants. The Eagles will have to counter for the Buccaneers' pressure that is surely coming their way.

"We have to give everybody the tools and the answers to go out there and execute their job properly against the blitz and credit to the Giants," Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said earlier this week. "They did a great job of doing some unique things that created some issues for us, but definitely a moment that we can learn from and continue to grow from."

"I think just the variety of different fronts, different personnel groupings, being able to mix and match, being able to package it in a way where it looks very similar to other things that they can present," Johnson added. "So for us, we really have to be on in terms of our identification system."

Hurts threw 23 attempts against the blitz in Week 3, throwing two interceptions with a 40.5 passer rating. The Eagles will have to change some things up.

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