TAMPA — Shaquil Barrett has spent much of his career wondering about the next year.
As a free agent, he hoped the next step was a starting spot with a new team. After leading the NFL in sacks with 19.5 for the Bucs in 2019, next on the wishlist was a big contract. After being given the franchise player tag, next year offered hope for his family to put down roots.
“We have come too close to start out next year without a (Super Bowl) ring,” Barrett said. “We’ve got to work this week for it, get everybody onboard, which they already are, but keep them with high energy and just execute it because we’re too close to start all over, man.”
The only thing that matters to Barrett now is the next game, the one that can fulfill his dreams of becoming a Super Bowl champion.
The Bucs are here, preparing to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 in their home stadium, because of what Barrett did in the last game.
He and bookend outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul put the defense on their backs and combined for five sacks of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Bucs’ 31-26 win in the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.
It was Pierre-Paul’s first multi-sack playoff game while Barrett became the first Bucs player to have three sacks in a postseason game since Warren Sapp did it to Packers quarterback Brett Favre on the same field.
“Me and Shaq are just playing,” Pierre-Paul said. “Shaq goes out there, he plays and if he gets a sack, I want two. If I get two, he wants three. That’s just how it goes.”
The feeding frenzy is reminiscent of the Broncos team Barrett was part of for five seasons, the one that took down Cam Newton and the Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50. Led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos sacked Newton seven times and forced four turnovers.
“(Ware) was determined to get it by any means, wouldn’t let failure be an option,” Barrett said. “And that’s what I’m on right now.”
The pursuit of a championship and the sacrifice that comes with it has not been Barrett’s alone. His wife, Jordanna, had to arrange to home school their kids.
“Like my wife and kids not able to interact with anybody,” Barrett said. “They’re just being in the house all day. Me, I’m coming home. I get to go to work and have adult interaction with my friends in the locker room and the coaches and stuff. It’s a lot easier for me because I do get interaction, but my wife and kids don’t get to see friends, talk to friends … it’s been real tough on them.”
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On the field, it was tough on Barrett, too. He got the attention from offensive coordinators befitting of a man who led the NFL in sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
Barrett struggled to match 2019 and finished the regular season with only eight sacks. But the postseason is where legacies are made.
The Bucs defense already has taken down the Saints’ Drew Brees and Rodgers. If they beat the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, Barrett figures to play a huge role.
In their first meeting in November, the Chiefs led 17-0 and were looking for more with the ball inside the Bucs’ 20-yard line when Barrett sacked Mahomes and caused a fumble that the Bucs recovered.
“Last time we played them he strip-sacked me,” Mahomes said. “So, I have to know where he’s at on each and every play.”
A season-ending Achilles injury to left tackle Eric Fisher means Barrett will line up against tackle Andrew Wylie rather than Mike Remmers, the Panthers’ right tackle who was beaten so often in Super Bowl 50.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Remmers said. “He’s a very smart football player. He’s got great speed, he’s got great power, he’s got a ton of moves. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, and he makes plays, that’s the main thing. He’s definitely going to be a challenge for us up front, and I can’t wait to go out there and play him on Sunday.”
Both Pierre-Paul and Barrett have been helped by the return of defensive tackle Vita Vea, who broke his leg at Chicago in Week 5 and did not play against the Chiefs in the first meeting. Vea played 33 snaps against the Packers, pushing the pocket and creating one-on-ones for the Bucs outside linebackers.
There are a lot of ways the Bucs could lose to the Chiefs on Sunday. But a clear path to victory will be if the Bucs’ defensive line can pressure Mahomes without having to blitz.
Barrett is 28 and his five seasons with the Broncos were an apprenticeship behind Ware and Miller. It’s still hard to believe he came to the Bucs on a one-year, $4 million prove-it contract.
“This is everything I dreamed as a kid to be on this stage, be in the role I’m in on the defense and the team,” Barrett said. “This is everything I could ever imagine and I want to make sure I take full advantage of it. I don’t want any of these opportunities to go by.”
Tomorrow will have to take a back seat to today.
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