Bucs’ stars return on defense, handle Eagles in playoff opener

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TAMPA — The call was for a middle blitz, with linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White standing over the opposite shoulders of Eagles center Jason Kelce. Safety Jordan Whitehead followed behind them, while outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett dropped into his fire-zone coverage in the middle of the field.

“Shaq did a great job of disguising, drawing their offensive tackle and getting in the window of the quarterback,” David said. “Shaq practices that play all the time. You know him and (Jason Pierre-Paul) always say they’ve got the best drops on the team, the best hands on the team. You’ve got to give them their props; they make the plays when the time comes.”

For Barrett, David and Pierre-Paul — three of the Bucs’ best defenders and who have missed all or parts of the past three games recovering from an assortment of injuries — the time to return to the lineup finally came in Sunday’s 31-15 win over the Eagles in an NFC wild-card game.

Barrett was playing with a brace on the right knee he injured nearly a month ago at Carolina. But the bad wheel didn’t stop him from leaping and tipping a pass from Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts that he intercepted and returned 17 yards in the third quarter.

On the next play, Tom Brady put the game away with a 36-yard touchdown strike to Mike Evans to give the Bucs a 31-0 lead and ice the first playoff win at Raymond James Stadium in 18 years.

“That was the play of the year by Shaq Barrett,” said Evans, who led the Bucs with nine catches for 117 yards and the touchdown. “That’s not an ordinary play by a defensive lineman/outside linebacker. Unbelievable play by him. Really kind of iced the game for us.”

It would figure that against a quarterback named Hurts, the Bucs’ defense would look healthy again.

At one point in the first half, the Bucs had a commanding 190-12 advantage in net yards.

Tampa Bay forced three turnovers, including an interception in the end zone and a muffed punt by Jalen Reagor recovered by Ross Cockrell.

The Bucs also reminded everyone of how, when healthy, their defense is capable of setting up Brady for another Super Bowl run. The Bucs host either the Rams or Cardinals, who play tonight, in the next round.

Brady performed his usual laser surgery on the Eagles’ defense, passing for 271 yards and two touchdowns while spreading the ball around to nine pass catchers.

He was sacked four times, and the most disconcerting thing about that was that tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen suffered ankle sprains, with only Jensen finishing the game.

Barrett and Pierre-Paul were on a play count, but neither appeared limited on the field.

“(Barrett) looked healthy as hell when he was running, didn’t he?” coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s what’s nice about having that five-man rotation, being able to use all of those guys and have fresh bodies out there chasing (Hurts) around.”

David, meanwhile, may have been the player the defense missed the most the past few weeks. He didn’t learn until Saturday he would be playing.

Leading up to Sunday, the Bucs heard how the Eagles were a different team from the one they beat in Philadelphia on Oct. 14. Hurts and Co. owned the league’s best rushing offense, and the Bucs’ run defense had been leaky of late. Plus, the forecast called for rain and wind. Philly weather.

“Of course, we took it personally,” David said. “I’m not sure, I think they mentioned in their media, ‘If we run the ball, we’ll be just fine,’ not knowing we got a great run defense, too. That was going to be our challenge throughout the week. We definitely honed in on it. For the most part, we did a pretty good job against it.”

With Brady helping the Bucs build a lead by scoring on three of their first four possessions, the defense was able to tee off on Hurts. The Eagles finished with 95 yards rushing, a team-leading 39 by Hurts.

“We just tackled way better,” Arians said. “We played the screen game way better. We were more physical in the first three quarters.”

The biggest plus for the Bucs is Brady, who keeps putting together the weekly jigsaw puzzle that has become the offense. On Sunday they needed Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard to carry the run game, and each of them scored a touchdown.

“Once Tom figures you out, man, you’re in trouble,” Arians said. “The wind didn’t even affect him at all, and he was extremely accurate, on the right guys. That was a dime he threw to Mike on the long touchdown.”

Stamina may be an issue for the Bucs as they work their way back in shape, but Sunday proved they could be in for another long playoff run.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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