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Vita Vea’s replacement a reserve in name only

Sixth-year pro Rakeem Nunez-Roches is ready for a bigger role with the Bucs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56) works through a defensive drill during a team practice on Tuesday.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56) works through a defensive drill during a team practice on Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 13, 2020|Updated Oct. 13, 2020

TAMPA — As the Bucs move on without nose tackle Vita Vea — the anchor of the team’s defensive front who will miss the remainder of the season with a broken leg — they will rely on a player who may be a backup by definition, but not by mentality.

Sixth-year pro Rakeem Nunez-Roches will assume the majority of snaps at nose tackle Sunday when the Bucs host the Green Bay Packers. It’s a place Nunez-Roches has been before, assuming a larger role during the 2016 and 2017 seasons in Kansas City, starting 16 games over that stretch.

“Step in and fill big shoes,” Nunez-Roches said Tuesday. “I’ve been there before. It’s not a big shocker as far as my role having to increase, because every time I come to work — and in my whole offseason — I’m preparing to be a starter. If you’re preparing to be a backup, you’re in the wrong game. I come to work as if I’m going to be out there playing 50-60 plays. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.

“Don’t count the plays — make the plays count.”

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No one can replace Vea, the Bucs' former first-rounder who was becoming one of the top nose tackles in the game. Vea fought off constant double teaming and that opened opportunities for others on the defensive front. Vea was a big reason the Bucs have had one of the top run defenses in the league.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56) lines up against the Chicago Bears last Thursday.
Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56) lines up against the Chicago Bears last Thursday. [ JEFF HAYNES | AP ]

The Bucs will have to be creative. Rookie sixth-round pick Khalil Davis could see his first NFL snaps, and outside linebacker Anthony Nelson could shift inside to help out. But for the most part, the Bucs will count on Nunez-Roches.

“No one’s going to be Vita, but Todd (Bowles) has a good plan,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.

For Nunez-Roches — called “Nacho” by his teammates, a nickname he’s had since his Chiefs days — this is the extension of an opportunity. He put on about 30 pounds, mostly to his upper half, in the offseason. He gained strength without losing quickness, and he showed coaches he could give the Bucs more snaps at nose tackle, and give Vea more of a rest.

During the preseason, coaches lauded Nunez-Roches as the team’s most improved player. Now he has more opportunity to show how he’s gotten better.

“I’m sad that Vita’s gone, but at the same time, (Nunez-Roches) gets to show the world and showcase his talent,” outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said. “Nacho, he’s actually a good player, too. He just hasn’t had the playing time so you could see. I’m actually waiting for Nacho to get out there and see what he can do.”

In the Bucs' wins over Carolina and Denver in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, Nunez-Roches played nearly half of the defensive snaps (47 and 46 percent), which allowed Vea to stay fresh. On the season, he has played a career-high 38 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, a number that will now jump with Vea’s absence.

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“I feel like we won’t have a lack of production from the nose spot with him in there,” inside linebacker Devin White said. “In general, that’s just the type of guys we’ve got all around the board. So, I’m very comfortable with him being in and I know (inside linebacker) Lavonte (David) is very comfortable playing behind him because he comes in the game to spell Vita a lot.”

Even after last Thursday’s loss to the Bears, the Bucs face Green Bay ranked second in the league in total defense (298.2 yards per game), and they allow just an average of 58.4 yards a game on the ground, making them the NFL’s top run defense.

The Packers are the league’s top-ranked offense in both total yardage (445.5 yards a game) and scoring (38 points a game).

While the Bucs may be without one of their top defensive players, Nunez-Roches has been preparing for his starting role.

“Something can happen at any moment,” Nunez-Roches said. “You don’t want to be sitting there, ‘I’m preparing for five plays or 10 plays.’ One day someone wakes up with a stomach sickness and now you’re in there for 40 plays and it shows in your preparation. You’re out there making mistakes, losing downs or you’re getting cut out of your gap because you didn’t put yourself in the best situation to be successful.

"When the opportunity comes, you just want to be ready.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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