TAMPA — Vita Vea did not record an official statistic. Not a tackle, sack or quarterback hit. Yet by any other measure he was the Bucs’ most dominant defensive player in the Bucs 31-29 win over the Cowboys on Thursday night.
The 6-foot-4, 347-pound defensive tackle helped hold running back Ezekiel Elliott to 33 yards. But more impressively, he consistently pushed the pocket and forced quarterback Dak Prescott to check the football down or throw it away on critical downs.
Vea’s contribution is sometimes too subtle to be summarized.
He hits the center, guard or tackle like a freight train, moving them backward as if they were on rails.
The Bucs lined Vea up all over the field and he was impactful wherever he landed.
At defensive end, he crushed Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, forcing Prescot to throw an errant pass for an incompletion.
“Vita played 54 defensive snaps for the Bucs (Thursday). They say he didn’t have a tackle,” said the NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger, while breaking down film of Vea from the game. “Stats are so misleading. You can make them do whatever you want. But here he is at defensive end, just crushing the pocket right here, beating one of the best tackles in the whole business in Tyron Smith. ...
“You watch him in the middle. No center can handle him. None. So nothing against Tyler (Biadasz) here, nobody can stop this Polynesian power from coming through. That’s what you call crushing the pocket. All right? (Prescott’s) got no choice but to just throw that ball away. When he gets over the center, you can’t block like this. You’ve got to slide and protect. This is just bowling for dollars. Just knocking down all the pins.”
Vea factored in two of the biggest plays of the game. With Dallas trailing 28-26 in the fourth quarter, Vea drew a holding penalty on Cowboys guard Connor Williams. Then on third and 16, Vea pushed Williams into Prescott’s lap, forcing him to dump the ball underneath to Amari Cooper for a 10-yard gain.
The Cowboys had to settle for a 48-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein and a 29-28 lead with 1:24 remaining, too much time to prevent Tom Brady from mounting the game-winning drive.
“Obviously everybody thinks of him as a run stuffer but he’s a hell of a pass rusher,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of Vea. “He got the one (offensive) holding (penalty). It should’ve been back-to-back holding penalties. He crushed that guard both times. They called the first one, but they wouldn’t call two in a row. He had a hell of a night.”
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Vea was off to a great start last season before fracturing his leg when he was inadvertently hit by linebacker Devin White while making a tackle against the Bears in Week 5.
By then, Vea had begun to emerge as a pass rusher and had two sacks on the season.
“This past month, or maybe two months, that’s the No. 1 thing (defensive line) coach Kacy (Rodgers) has been harping on us and that’s the No. 1 thing we’ve been working at in training camp, working moves and trying to rush the passer and stuff like that,” Vea said last week. “So we’ve been taking steps and doing better at rushing. We’ve shown improvement, but we’d like to do more.”
The Bucs certainly missed Vea during the bulk of the 2020 regular season, as well as in the wildcard and division playoff game. But his return to the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay was a preview of what was to come.
Playing 33 snaps against the Packers, he again didn’t record a stat but absorbed double teams, pushed the pocket and enabled outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett to combine for five sacks.
“Last year, I was always in the meetings. I never left,” Vea said. “I was around. I watched practice when I could. I was always in the meetings when I was working out and doing treatment. Mentally, I got all the mental reps I could get. I think I got a fresh offseason to train and get my ankle healthy and I feel good. Everything feels good.”
He’s playing some of his best football and the tape proves it.
There’s an adage in the NFL that if you watch the ball, you miss the game. Even though Prescott had a good night throwing, the game was won in the critical red-zone moments by Vea dominating the line of scrimmage.
“You can’t leave your center one-on-one,” Baldinger said. “This is what they want. They want Vea on the center. Any center. It doesn’t matter what name he has. You’ve got to slide to him. Jet protection. Something. Because this is what he’s going to do to the pocket. He’s just going to flat out crush it and your ball is going to end out in the dirt.
“People look at the stats. They say he didn’t have any stats. Really? What an impactful player he is. There’s nobody else like him in the league. Nobody has that type of power.”
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