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Buccaneers-Bengals All-22: Vita Vea, defensive tackle/utility infielder?

You weren’t imagining things when you saw the 340-pounder drop into pass coverage Sunday.
Though he's known more for mauling offensive linemen, Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea dropped into pass coverage three times Sunday. [Associated Press]
Though he's known more for mauling offensive linemen, Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea dropped into pass coverage three times Sunday. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 31, 2018
Updated Nov. 1, 2018

Knee injury? What knee injury?

When asked Wednesday, Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea looked as if he had never heard of such a thing — a knee, an injury or any kind of combination of the two.

“Nah,” Vea said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m fine. I’m totally 100 percent.”

Coach Dirk Koetter said earlier this week that the first-round draft pick hurt his knee on the team’s first defensive play of the fourth quarter Sunday against the Bengals and that the team was concerned enough that it performed an MRI exam.

On the play, a Joe Mixon run to the right, Vea fell to a knee while he was trying to shed a block. Afterward, he showed no signs of discomfort and even slapped the helmet of Carl Nassib, who tackled Mixon for a 5-yard loss. He stayed on the field for the next play and remained in the game throughout the fourth quarter.

Were the Bucs just being abundantly cautious? Perhaps. But it’s not like teams hand out MRI exams like Halloween candy.

While the game tape shows no clear evidence of an injury, it reveals something else nearly as mysterious: Vea, who weighs about 340 pounds, dropping into pass coverage.

Yes, we all saw him run 40 yards to make an open-field tackle on a punt return in the Fiesta Bowl last year. Yes, the Bucs are thin at linebacker and defensive back. But who do they think Vea is? Luke Kuechly? Brian Urlacher? Ben Zobrist?

Vea, who had yet to drop into coverage before Sunday, did so three times against the Bengals, including on their first pass, a 22-yard completion to Tyler Boyd. Boyd ran a shallow crossing route behind Vea and in front of linebacker Lavonte David. On the other side of the field, receiver Alex Erickson ran a deeper route that temporarily pulled David away from Boyd. Quarterback Andy Dalton could have tried to thread a pass to Erickson but checked down to Boyd, who dodged David’s tackle attempt.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Vea’s assignment was part chance and part design, and by design, it seems that the Bucs told Vea, “You have some, um, bulk. Go be big and get in the way.” At least that’s my interpretation of defensive coordinator Mark Duffner’s explanation.

“We had a scheme right there in terms of coverage. It just so happened it was the left tackle. (Vea) happened to be the left guy on those calls,” Duffner said. “He can about fill up between the hashes just with his size, so that might be a good thing to consider.”

We saw a similar play during the game’s final seconds, but hold that thought for a moment.

• • •

Vea’s official position is defensive tackle, which means he’s an interior lineman. But this is 2018. We’re sensitive about the labels we sling around. Labels lead to generalizations. This is the age of disruption, of challenging the status quo. Vea is not just your average “defensive tackle.” Every once in a while, he can be an edge rusher, too.

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On a second and 21 during the fourth quarter, Vea, who supposedly had injured his knee a few minutes earlier, lined up on the left edge of the defensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul, who usually plays on the edge, lined up in the interior.

“We were trying to get matchups on different people in terms of attacking guys inside and outside, so trying to see where we could take advantage of a particular pass protector,” Duffner said.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

When Vea and offensive tackle Bobby Hart collided, it looked as if Hart had swapped his cleats for roller skates. Before he landed on Dalton’s lap, however, the ball was on its way to Mixon, who picked up 9 yards.

Said Vea: “Got a little taste of the outside, to see how it felt.”

• • •

In the final minute of the game, Dalton completed two passes to A.J. Green, one for 23 yards and one for 11, to put the Bengals in position for a tie-breaking field goal.

The 23-yard gain was a near copy of the first play in this breakdown. Cincinnati emptied the backfield and lined up with five receivers. This time, they flipped the routes. Boyd again ran a shallow crossing route; Green ran the deeper route on the other side of the field.

Vea dropped into coverage but wasn’t a factor. David didn’t bite on the crossing route and matched up with Green. Instead of checking down to Boyd, Dalton dropped the ball over David’s head and in front of safety Justin Evans.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

You could argue that David should have gained more depth or that Evans should have been closer, but Dalton made a great throw and Green made a great catch. They’re paid to play football, too.

As for Vea, the Bucs better be careful showcasing his versatility. He just might draw some interest from the Rays. They’re always looking to add another utility infielder/outfielder/usher.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.