TAMPA — The Bucs kept their outside linebackers fresh in last Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Bears.
With feels-like temperatures exceeding 100 degrees during the game, starters Shaquil Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (53% of the defensive snaps) split reps with Anthony Nelson (45%) and YaYa Diaby (43%).
But the Bucs’ biggest big man, 6-foot-4, 350-pound defensive tackle Vita Vea, rarely came off the field, logging 64% of the snaps.
More importantly, he was dominant against double teams. Vea finished with one of the best games of his career: three tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss and three quarterback hits.
The Bucs signed Vea to a four-year, $71 million contract in January 2022. Since then, he’s done everything to prove his worth, leading the team in sacks last season with 6.5. His leadership in the locker room also has increased.
“Vita did some great things to free the other two guys up,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s grown into a great leadership role. He got off the ball, quite a few times. He had a heck of a ballgame. His stamina as he continues to run, for a guy that size, is still really unbelievable to look at. He plays hard, he plays tough and he’s our anchor.”
Vea was limited in practice during the week with a pectoral injury. He is the main cog in the Bucs’ run defense, which is second only to the Eagles and allowing 54 rushing yards per game.
If you think he’s good now, wait until the return of rookie defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, the first-round pick from Pittsburgh who played only 11 snaps in the season opener at Minnesota before aggravating a calf injury.
‘Team full of winners’
Bowles is often asked about the Bucs’ surprising 2-0 start and the continued winning culture despite the retirement of quarterback Tom Brady.
The Bucs are exceeding expectations and preseason prognostications that had them near the bottom of the NFL in power rankings. But Bowles and his players insist this is the success they expected.
“Even when we had (Brady), it was a team full of winners, so it’s no different for us,” Bowles said. “We don’t feel any differently in the building. We set our own expectations and that’s what we go by. I think the minute you start performing to other people’s expectations, you start letting yourself down and letting everybody else down.
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“We have belief in this building, we have confidence in this building. We’ve had winners in this building the past few years — that has not changed. The people have changed but that has not changed.”
Tampa Bay is relying on a lot of rookies and second-year players this season and getting production from both, whether it’s defensive back Christian Izien with an interception in each game or receiver Trey Palmer.
“Them being able to learn and attention to detail, the coaches being able to get the information to them — it’s a group effort here,” Bowles said. “We don’t win alone, we don’t lose alone. I think those guys — I told you they could play before.
“The good thing with having young legs, they can practice every day. Older guys, you have to rest more. They’re eager, they’re very good football players. We’ve just got to give them the right information.”
Ronde Barber’s signature play
The Bucs will honor their iconic defensive back when Ronde Barber receives his class ring from the Pro Football Hall of Fame at halftime Monday night.
It’s not a coincidence the ceremony will come against the Eagles. Barber’s 92-yard touchdown return in the NFC Championship Game at Veterans Stadium that sent the Bucs onto Super Bowl 37 still is considered the biggest play in franchise history.
It’s been shown thousands of times and Barber is asked about it often. What’s lost is that Barber’s stat line that day included a sack, forced fumble and four passes defensed.
In fact, his preparation led to all those plays but the interception return was purely instinct.
“Donovan (McNabb) was the unfortunate participant in a moment for me that I don’t know if I’ve ever been as hyper-focused as I was for that NFC Championship Game,” Barber said. “It’s not a zone. It’s hyper-focused and I was prepared to make every single play I made that day. The one that people remember was probably the only instinctual play I made that day. The rest of them were planned, like I knew what was coming. Four pass breakups, a sack-fumble, a bunch of tackles.
“One of my best plays in that game was a screen fit I made. I don’t make the tackle, but there’s three offensive linemen coming at me and a running back. I have a specific screen fit. I made the guy think I was going outside, stepped inside, reduced my shoulder and almost got on the running back. That shouldn’t happen.
“(McNabb) didn’t capture the moment. There are indicators that say I wouldn’t be coming. Just look at the structure of the defense. I wouldn’t be blitzing right there. He took the cheese. I came down just long enough. You can see it, I’m moving out of the gap before the snap. Then I’ve got to look up and see where the receiver is. I got to find my Cover 2 drop and as soon as I look back at the quarterback, the ball is coming out. Instinct.
“It was the most catchable ball, period. It was away from my body and I put my hand out and it just stuck there. Then it was how do I run 92 yards with my torn PCL.”
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