Back-to-back losses haven't put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in panic mode yet, but it's starting to get hot around the collar.
Just one game off the final playoff spot in the NFC with a 6-6 record, the Buccaneers have a good shot at returning to the win column when they host the fading Philadelphia Eagles Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers won four in a row from Oct. 25-Nov. 18 and suffered a second straight close defeat last weekend in a 31-23 setback at Denver. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman had a 72.8 quarterback rating against the Broncos and threw a pair of TD passes with an interception returned for a score. Freeman said he tried to fit a pass in a tight window to Vincent Jackson, but Broncos linebacker Von Miller stepped in front and rumbled toward the end zone.
Freeman noticed Denver dropped deep in pass coverage and that played a role in the team's execution.
"We found a way to beat ourselves, Freeman said. "Bottom line is we have to execute better. We have a lot of football left to be played. We're just focused on the next game. Focused on getting ready for the Eagles."
Freeman said the players were anxious to get back home, study film and put their best foot forward in preparing for Philadelphia. The Eagles are out of the playoff picture, but could pose problems for Tampa Bay, which has played some tough foes over the past few weeks. Denver was able to contain rookie sensation Doug Martin, who has rushed for 106 yards in the past two games and was held to 56 yards on 18 carries in Denver.
Martin and Redskins rookie Alfred Morris are both tied for third in the NFL with 1,106 rushing yards. Tampa Bay needs Martin to revert back to Weeks 8-11, when he averaged 148 yards per game with five touchdowns.
Tampa Bay has thrived this season with Martin and averages 117.5 rushing yards. Martin leads all rookies in rushing and is averaging 92.2 ypg. He'll have a chance to bounce back against an Eagles defense that is 18th in run defense, yielding 117.9 ypg. Martin was asked this week to evaluate his performance the past two games.
"I feel like I have been doing good. My body feels great, my mind is clear," Martin said.
The Buccaneers, who close the season with games against the NFC and are 3-5 against the conference, may have an added advantage with the celebration of their 2002 Super Bowl XXXVII title set for this weekend. They defeated the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game that year, closing out the final game at Veterans Stadium.
Philadelphia's season has imploded much like its old stomping grounds at the Vet and looks to halt an eight-game losing streak, the longest under coach Andy Reid and worst slide since an 0-11 start in 1968.
The Eagles haven't won since defeating the rival New York Giants back on Sept. 30, but have been competitive in each of their last two losses. In last Sunday night's 38-33 loss at Dallas, Eagles rookie quarterback Nick Foles made his third career start and threw for 251 yards and a touchdown. Foles was then named the starter the remainder of the season as Michael Vick continues to recover from a concussion suffered on Nov. 11 versus the Cowboys at home.
"We need to score more points and put more points on the board, and that's on us and me as the quarterback," Foles said this week. "I felt like we ran the offense well, and we just have to keep getting better and we can put more points on the board and win the game."
Foles has given the Eagles some life offensively and rookie running back Bryce Brown appears to be a steal in the seventh round. As LeSean McCoy rests with concussion-like symptoms, Brown has rushed for 347 yards and four touchdowns in his last two starts. Brown, though, had two costly fumbles in a loss to Carolina and coughed up the ball again last week against Dallas. The fumble was scooped up by Dallas rookie Morris Claiborne and returned for a TD.
Brown and the Eagles have been working on protecting the football.
"We're doing a lot of stuff at practice, scout guys are going after it a lot more, trying to game-simulate it because we don't really do contact (in practice)," Brown said. "It's making me work a lot harder, too.
"They almost got two (fumbles today), but we're over-emphasizing high and tight, keeping it real tucked. They didn't get me."
Philadelphia is ninth in the league with 133.6 rushing yards per game and faces the NFL's stingiest run defense in Tampa Bay. The Bucs have suffocated opposing running attacks this season, allowing a league-low 82.3 rushing yards per game.
The Eagles own an 8-7 record all-time against Tampa Bay, which includes a 33-14 win in the last meeting on October 11, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field. Philadelphia is 2-3 on the road in this series. The two teams have split four matchups in the playoffs.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Eagles have made some moves in the defensive department, most notably firing coordinator Juan Castillo and naming defensive backs coach Todd Bowles as his replacement. Defensive end Jason Babin was let go a few weeks ago and defensive line coach Jim Washburn received his walking papers this week.
Former d-line coach Tommy Brasher was coaxed out of retirement to take his old job back and doesn't get much time to prepare for Freeman and Tampa Bay's two talented receivers in Jackson and Mike Williams.
"We kind of knew something was going to happen after the season we've been having," Eagles end Brandon Graham said. "It's part of the business. It sucks that (Washburn) had to leave but I know Coach (Andy) Reid is going to put us in the right position to help us win. If that's what he felt he needed to do, I'm all for it."
Graham is one of a few young lineman being evaluated and played well in last week's loss to Dallas. Rookie end Vinny Curry and defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton are also under the microscope for an Eagles defense that is 26th in points allowed (26.7 ppg) and 17th in yards allowed (351.5 ypg). The Eagles should see a lot of Martin on Sunday. Martin's emergence has made Tampa Bay's pass attack that much better.
The Eagles' secondary has struggled in almost every game. Safety Kurt Coleman hasn't done much to hush the critics and may even miss Sunday's game with a sternum contusion. Special teams ace Colt Anderson has been working with the first team and will be in for a long day if not prepared.
"It's going to be huge," Anderson told the team's website. "Any time you can get practice reps you're going to feel more comfortable out there.
"We have to approach this week no different than others. We're just trying to win the game and we're going to kind of show everybody what kind of team we are."
The Bucs, though, have had their struggles in pass defense and are the worst team in the league in that category, allowing 309.4 ypg. Rookie safety Mark Barron and veteran Ronde Barber won't have to worry about injured Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson (ribs), but Jeremy Maclin can cause problems.
Maclin leads the Eagles with four TD receptions this season and is third with 44 receptions behind tight end Brent Celek (50) and Jackson (45). Celek can give opposing linebackers headaches in coverage and is arguably the heart and soul of the offense. Buccaneers rookie linebacker Lavonte David leads the team in stops (108) and Barber has a team-best four INTs. The Bucs are facing a rookie in Foles and could work the lanky signal caller into some mistakes.
But Tampa Bay will win the game with offense. Freeman won't have to worry about dodging tacklers because the Eagles are one of the worst teams in sacks. Freeman has been sacked just 17 times in 2012 and once in five of the past six games played. He went down twice versus Atlanta in Week 12. Freeman has 18 touchdown passes to four interceptions in his last eight games. In the previous four home games, Freeman has passed for 1,214 yards with eight TD passes, one interception and a 114.9 rating.
If all goes wrong for Freeman, at least he has Martin to turn to. Martin is second in the NFL with 1,480 yards from scrimmage. Martin has an NFC-best nine rushing scores in his first year out of Boise State and his presence has opened the passing offense.
"Our offense is pretty well-balanced. Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson are able to open the run game as well as the run game opening up the pass game," Martin said. "So it's nice to have that balance as an offense."
Martin added that he believes the Eagles have a strong front line, but isn't worried about the drama going on with their defense.
Freeman should have no issues going against Philadelphia's disappointing defensive backfield that seems to find a way to break down every week. The Eagles' defense has allowed 16 touchdowns with no turnovers the last six weeks and opposing quarterbacks have an average rating of 142.4 over that time. Tampa Bay is 11-3 when Freeman reaches 100 in QB rating and will chock up another win Sunday. Having Martin in the backfield and facing an Eagles defense in disarray will help the Bucs' postseason chances substantially.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 29, Eagles 17