TAMPA — The Bucs designated defensive tackle Vita Vea for return from injured reserve with the expectation that one of the league’s best run stoppers will be available for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Packers.
Vea, who broke his ankle in a 20-19 loss to the Bears on Oct. 8, will practice Wednesday and the Bucs believe there is a very good chance he could play in Sunday’s game at Green Bay.
It would be a huge boost for the Bucs defense, which finished first against the run for the second season in a row under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Vea, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2018, had 10 tackles and two sacks through the first five games until he was injured making a tackle against Bears running back David Montgomery; linebacker Devin White landed on his ankle.
Vea has been undergoing strenuous workouts in hopes that the Bucs would still be playing games in late January. The Bucs beat New Orleans 30-20 Sunday to advance to the NFC title game for only the fourth time in franchise history. Tampa Bay’s defense produced four turnovers, including three interceptions of Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Vea, 25, was emerging as one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive tackles and had become a force in the Bucs’ pass rush as well as an anchor in their run defense. At 6-foot-4, 347 pounds, Vea has teamed with Ndamukong Suh the past two seasons to give the Bucs’ two of the league’s top defensive tackles.
The Bucs still finished first in the NFL against the run, allowing 82.2 yards per game. A year ago, with Vea in the lineup, they allowed 73.8. With Vea out, the Bucs traded for Jets defensive tackle Steve McLendon.
The Packers rushed for a total of 188 yards in their NFC division playoff win over the Rams on Saturday. They have a three-headed monster in running backs Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon.
Coach Bruce Arians was effusive in his praise for Vea following his injury at Chicago.
“I don’t know if there was a better nose tackle out there,” Arians said. “He was getting sacks. He was getting pressure up the middle. (He) got hurt on a great hustle play on the side going back and forth, and it was really friendly fire that got his leg.”
And now his return might come at storied Lambeau Field against the Packers.