TAMPA — The Bucs were still buzzing about the play Vita Vea made in practice two days later. In time, it may become part mythology.
“I remember the exact play,” linebacker Devin White said. “How could I not?”
“We were just talking about that,” defensive tackle Khalil Davis said. “The younger guys, when we watched ... it got all of us fired up.”
The 6-foot-4, 346-pound Vea has always been an enormous talent. But with plays like the one he made Monday, he soon will turn poundage into profit.
Here’s how it went down during an 11-on-11 portion of practice. Running back Ronald Jones, who had a 98-yard touchdown run at Carolina last season, took a pass in the flat from Tom Brady and turned upfield.
There was a lot of open grass in front of Jones, and it looked like an easy catch and run for a first down, most likely more. Much more.
But seemingly out of nowhere, Vea turned and sprinted down the line of scrimmage, chasing down Jones from behind for little or no gain.
The sideline erupted. The players on the field hooted and hollered and slapped Vea on the helmet.
Jones looked as if he had been flattened by some phantom tackler.
“When we saw that, it was like, ‘My goodness. A man that big to be able to run down a running back,’” Davis said. “Whew. It was awesome to see, but it just reminds you how different of a player he is.”
Vea is different, all right. He’s also a difference-maker.
All you have to do is remember how well he was playing before he broke his leg in a grotesque manner when White fell on it trying to make a tackle in a 20-19 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 5.
The injury knocked Vea out of action until his remarkable return in the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. Vea played 33 snaps, and although he didn’t register a tackle, he may have been the single-biggest reason for their win over the Packers and holding the Chiefs without a touchdown in Super Bowl 55. He occupied blockers, allowing outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul to record five sacks.
“His presence there alone, before we talk about the play-making ability, just gives us a whole new identity as a defense, and it especially makes a guy like myself, when I look up and see a guy like No. 50 in there, man, he’s a guy God blessed in so many ways,” White said. “He’s got a special ability. A special talent.”
Keep in mind this was simply another practice period during training camp. It was brutally hot. It was near the end of the workout.
Nobody would’ve blamed Vea if he had simply pulled up and watched Jones run away from the defense.
“I was right there to make the play, so I chased him down just to show him I could make the tackle,” Vea said, shrugging his shoulders. “It was more to show myself that I still have it. To show myself if I could still run down the field and make a tackle.”
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Vea is not simply the kind of defensive tackle who stuffs the run and his face. He has crazy strength, speed and agility for a player his size.
“He really showed quick speed,” White said. “He showed a burst there, and it was very exciting to see.”
The 12th overall pick in 2018 is entering his fourth season. Two years ago, he played all 16 games for the only time in his career.
If Vea is able to stay healthy for all or most of the 17-game regular season, there’s no telling what kind of crazy numbers he could produce.
“It’s really exciting, because we brought the whole group, not only as a defense but we brought the whole D-line back, and we’ve all been together since my rookie year,” Vea said. “”Our chemistry has grown. We’ve got a good group in the D-line room and ... it’ll be exciting to see what we all do, especially with 17 games coming up.”
• • •
Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter to get updates and analysis on the latest team and NFL news from Bucs beat writer Joey Knight.