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Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett emerges as pass rushing force

With Jason Pierre-Paul injured, the Bucs needed a stalwart at outside linebacker. Barrett has provided that with four sacks in the team’s first two games.

TAMPA — Following the first of Shaquil Barrett’s three sacks Thursday night in Carolina, the Bucs outside linebacker jumped up, faced the Tampa Bay sideline, and lifted his fists to his chest, pulling them apart to imitate Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s Superman celebration.

That third-quarter drop of Newton in the Bucs’ 20-14 division road win over the Panthers was just the beginning of a superhero-like performance by Barrett, who would later add sacks on back-to-back plays, becoming the first Bucs player to record three sacks in a single game since Jacquies Smith against the Saints on Sept. 20, 2015.

“I just found a groove late in the second quarter and it carried over into the third quarter and the fourth quarter,” Barrett said, shaking his head with a smile. “Shoot, I just found it. I just found it.”

Barrett, 26, also became the first player to have three sacks in one quarter in 17 years, since Simeon Rice dropped Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks in the third quarter on Dec. 1, 2002.

It's been a remarkable start for a player who came to the Bucs on a one-year, $4-million deal after playing a secondary role with the Denver Broncos for the last four seasons.

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Heading into this season, the biggest question regarding the Bucs pass rush involved how the team would replace sack leader Jason Pierre-Paul, who would miss at least the first two months of the season following a neck injury he suffered in an offseason car accident.

Just two games into this season, Barrett already has four sacks — his career high is 5½ reached during his rookie season in 2015 — and he’s on pace to surpass Pierre-Paul’s sack total last season (12½ sacks).

The Bucs didn’t even guarantee Barrett a starting spot at outside linebacker going into the preseason. He shared first-team snaps with Noah Spence opposite returning starter Carl Nassib before Spence fizzled out and the team cut him.

Still, the Bucs believed that with Barrett having played in a 3-4 defensive alignment in Denver, he would be able to play well in new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme.

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Bucs coach Bruce Arians said he hoped Barrett could make an impact in Pierre-Paul’s absence, realizing that Barrett never received the opportunity to truly be a starter in Denver.

"When we evaluated him, whenever he was in, he flashed," Arians said. "He’s a slippery pass rusher but he’s also got power, so yeah, I think we were hoping that he would give us that and he’s delivered."

Barrett is finally receiving that opportunity. He's played in 82.5 percent of the Bucs' defensive snaps. In his four seasons in Denver, he never played more than 67.2 percent.

And last season, after a hip injury slowed him in the preseason and also forced him to miss three weeks late in the season, he played just 25.5 percent of defensive snaps. The emergence of Broncos’ first-round pick Bradley Chubb also played a role in Barrett’s playing time.

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On Thursday, Barrett benefitd from the Panthers double teaming nose tackle Vita Vea, which left Barrett in a one-on-one with Carolina left tackle Daryl Williams.

On Barrett's first sack, which came on a first-down after Carolina had moved into Bucs territory on its first second-half drive, he used a speed move to beat Williams wide. On his second sack, he ducked his left shoulder to move past Williams. And his third sack, he pushed Williams back as Newton couldn't find a receiver in time.

The latter two sacks turned a second-and-10 scenario at the Bucs 21 into a fourth-and-22 at the 33, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal that briefly gave Carolina a 12-10 lead in the third.

"I could have has one more," Barrett said. "I got held on one play. I'm just happy for what I got. I'm grateful, thankful and just really appreciative."

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Barrett is the only Bucs player to register a sack this season — he had one in the Bucs’ Week 1 loss to the 49ers — and Bowles’ defenses typically have more balanced production. But Arians has been pleased with the pass rush, and he believes that as long as Vea and defensive end Ndamukong Suh keep providing pressure up the middle, the sacks will come.

“We definitely took a step in the right direction, but it’s nowhere close to where we want to be,” Barrett said. “We knew we played good enough to win last week But we needed to do more. And this week, we tried to do more and step up as much as we can. The offense did their job, got us some points and we went with them and got the win.”

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Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.