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By locking up Vita Vea, Bucs secure NFL’s consummate middle man

Vea’s imposing presence has changed the way offenses attack the Buccaneers.
Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea (50) is acknowledged by fans at the conclusion of Sunday's 41-17 rout of the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea (50) is acknowledged by fans at the conclusion of Sunday's 41-17 rout of the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 10

In Vita Vea’s stratosphere, nearly everything is massive — including the microcosms.

Take his stat line Sunday in the Bucs’ 41-17 romp of the Panthers. Officially, the 347-pound nose tackle managed only two tackles on 30 plays, but his presence and influence on Carolina’s game plan transcended individual totals.

There was a reason the Panthers attempted only two runs up the middle on their 14-play opening drive, opting instead to chip away with short passes to the perimeter. Same reason other foes have employed a similar strategy. Also the same reason 30-something peers Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston and Steve McLendon are enjoying mini-resurgences.

At 26, Vea has evolved into a game-changer, whose staggering blend of mass and agility isn’t reflected in a game book. Hence the reason the Bucs signed him over the weekend to a four-year, $73 million extension that kicks in after his fifth-year option in 2022.

“It was just an incredible weekend,” Vea said following Sunday’s victory.

“Obviously, I’m happy about the new contract. I’m happy to be here for another four years. Just to cap the season off like this with 13 (regular-season) wins — first time in a long time, I think since the team was founded. I think that’s a big achievement for us as a team to get there. Just blessed that all of this has happened.”

Vea enters the second postseason of his career with 33 tackles, four sacks and 12 quarterback hits in 16 games. Far more profound, however, is the fact the Bucs have faced only 366 rushing attempts this season, fewest of any NFL team.

And while opponents recently have enjoyed more success on the ground as injuries have mounted, the 92.5 rushing yards a game the Bucs are allowing remain third-fewest in the league. Meantime, the double-teams Vea demands have helped enable Suh to collect six sacks for the second year in a row, and Gholston to total a career-best 4.5 sacks.

“That group works so well together, but Vita, he’s a little different body type than most of everybody in this league,” coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “Really happy for him, glad for the organization to have that done. But yeah, our front has been playing really, really well. The guys around them need to pick it up a little bit.”

Indeed, forcing offenses to the edges requires setting them. The Bucs’ struggles in that area have coincided with the recent absences of outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett (knee) and Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder), and inside linebacker Lavonte David (foot). The Jets ran for 150 yards two weekends ago in the Bucs’ 28-24 win. Carolina ran for 110 Sunday.

“We haven’t done a good job (against the run) the last two weeks because everybody’s trying to go wide on us and stay away from those big guys in the middle,” Arians said.

Now, they’re bracing for the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack.

The Eagles (159.7 rushing yards per game) have embraced the run-pass option (RPO) to maximize the skill set of second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, whose 784 rushing yards are the most of any QB in the league. Earlier this season, Philadelphia became the first team since the 1985 Bears to run for at least 175 yards in seven consecutive games.

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“We just have to go back to our fundamentals,” Vea said. “Just go back to the drawing board and see what we’ve got to fix. Obviously, we’ve got to fix it in a hurry going into the playoffs, but I think with us as a team, and the leaders on the team and our coaches, I think we’ll be able to turn it around.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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