TAMPA — He bounced into Tampa Bay’s postgame interview room bearing a smile as lustrous as his shimmering rows of gold teeth. A round gold medallion, dangling from a gold chain, hung from his sturdy neck.
His exuberance, meantime, contained nary a trace of pyrite. About an hour earlier, Rakeem Nunez-Roches had delivered one of the biggest plays of his NFL life, but that only complemented his grinning, gregarious turn at the podium.
It didn’t cause it. Practice or game, meeting or meal time, a glow constantly seems to be emanating from the dude with the catchy, calorific nickname.
“Yeah, ‘Nacho’ has great energy all the time,” outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett said.
“He brings it every single day, all day long,” coach Bruce Arians added. “That’s one thing about Nacho; he ain’t going to shut up in practice either.”
And so it was at the most tense juncture of Sunday’s game against the Falcons, who had rallied from an 18-point deficit with a pair of touchdown drives. Trailing 28-25 with 11:46 remaining, Atlanta faced third and 1 from its own 13 and momentum clearly in its huddle.
But the 307-pound bundle of zeal was bouncing in the opposing huddle.
“I think Nacho did a real good job getting us going on the defense,” Barrett added. “He (was) up there in the huddle before we called the play just talking to us, getting us going.”
Lining up at the three-technique alongside veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon, Nunez-Roches recognized the Falcons’ alignment from film study and was atop tailback Cordarrelle Patterson nearly before he took the handoff from Matt Ryan. Nunez-Roches dropped Patterson for a 3-yard loss, forcing Atlanta to punt.
Three plays later, Tom Brady found Chris Godwin for a 12-yard touchdown strike. A seismic momentum shift, courtesy of the buoyant Belize native.
“I knew the play,” Nunez-Roches said. “I’d seen the formation before — I’d seen it on film — so the game slowed down and I knew I could get off and make that play. I saw it before it happened.”
Collectively, the Bucs have struggled getting to the quarterback to this point. A year after totaling 48 sacks, they have collected only two in as many games. Their nine total quarterback pressures are tied for 19th in the league.
Of course, the success of the pass rushers goes hand-in-hand with the effectiveness of the pass coverage, which has mostly struggled through the first eight quarters of 2021.
“I think we’re getting a ton of pressure,” Arians said Monday. “And knocking them down sometimes is as good as sacking them; they feel it, too. But yeah, I’d like to see some more sacks.”
Tack on the momentary lapses of intensity, such as the one that occurred in Sunday’s third quarter, and coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit still has some refining ahead of it.
Enter Nacho, who can break up his meeting room’s monotony as effectively as he did the Falcons’ momentum.
“That’s me. That’s how I come to work,” he said. “I can’t come to work being too serious. I can’t come to work being too focused. Me playing, me talking, that’s one of my things. I come to work down, people are going to ask me ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Gratitude — for a prosperous livelihood in the wake of a bleak youth — may account for the effervescence. Born and raised in Dangriga, Belize, he emigrated with his single mom to the United States in 2000, and for a time, relocated all over the country.
Nunez-Roches’ mom told the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American in 2014 that her sister was married to a soldier who took her and Rakeem wherever they were stationed. They ultimately settled in Phenix City, Ala., on the state’s eastern fringe, where Nunez-Roches blossomed into a three-sport prep athlete.
After a dazzling redshirt junior season at Southern Miss in 2014 (63 tackles, 15 for loss, four sacks), he was selected by the Chiefs in the sixth round the following year, becoming the first Belizean-born player to be drafted by the NFL. After playing all 16 games in Kansas City in 2017, he was released the following spring.
The Bucs signed him in October of that year, but he didn’t truly distinguish himself until last fall, when nose tackle Vita Vea broke his ankle in Week 5. Helping fill that gaping void, Nunez-Roches appeared in all 20 games (including playoffs), totaling 24 tackles and four quarterback hits.
The Bucs’ 48 regular-season sacks tied for fourth in the league, and the 3.6 rushing yards opponents averaged against them was an NFL-low.
“He played really good, he played lights out,” Arians said. “Vita’s Vita, but Nacho’s one heck of a player, too. I mean, there wasn’t a heck of a lot of dropoff.”
Fast forward to 2021, and Nunez-Roches remains a steady part of the interior rotation, logging 31 snaps (43 percent of all defensive snaps) Sunday against the Falcons and providing sideline gusto on the 38 others.
To his coach, that’s pure gold.
“He’s bringing it all day long, and that’s what I love about him,” Arians said. “And he’s talking on the sideline. He’s always got that energy and he’s not going to let anybody get down.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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