TAMPA — After he intercepted the pass with his right arm — the one that has the smiling face of his daughter from her 2nd birthday party tattooed on it — Shaquil Barrett felt a push and suddenly he was in the end zone. The game-sealing, 4-yard pick-six of a pass thrown by Bears quarterback Justin Fields sealed the Bucs’ 27-17 win with two minutes to play Sunday.
“I couldn’t be denied those 4 yards,” Barrett said. “I’ve got to find a way to get in there. And my teammates came to rally behind me and helped me get into the end zone. It was just a great way to end the game.”
Only a week earlier Barrett said he sat in the Bucs locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium and cried his eyes out. There’s no warning when he’s about to be swept away by the waves of grief that hit him at different times during the day.
More than a Pro Bowl linebacker, he is a grieving father missing his little girl, 2-year-old Arrayah, who drowned in the family’s swimming pool on April 30.
“Literally, last week before the game I was struggling,” Barrett said Sunday. “Then I was struggling real bad. I couldn’t stop crying. I called my wife and some of the coaches checked in on me. Then like out of the blue, everything just went away and I was able to focus on a game. My wife says people pray for me and I actually felt that wave of emotions slide to the side, and I was actually able to focus.”
Barrett had his first sack of the season — one of six by the Bucs on Sunday — and the interception to lead a resurgent defense that has forced five turnovers in two games.
The fact that at age 30 Barrett has recovered from a torn Achilles he sustained midway through the 2022 season is remarkable enough. That he could concentrate on playing football after Arrayah’s death is a testament to his faith and family.
“I always play for my family already, but having, like, that extra incentive makes me want to go a little harder for her,” Barrett said of Arrayah. “It’s never stopped. It always sucks but to be able to shine a spotlight on her a little bit. … The camera was on me after I made the play. I told her I love you, miss you, wish you were here.
“So I’m glad I’m able to still get some spotlight for her and to the Lord above because he’s the reason why we’re here right now and then just trusting His plan and no matter what it is works for good.”
Barrett was just one of the heroes on the Bucs defense Sunday. Fellow outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, who appeared to have plateaued with only 4.5 sacks in each of his first two pro seasons, sacked Fields twice. Defensive tackle Vita Vea had 1.5 sacks, splitting one with outside linebacker Cam Gill. Defensive lineman Logan Hall also shared a sack.
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Fields finished only 16 of 29 passing for 211 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. The other came three plays after Barrett’s pick when rookie Christian Izien grabbed his second in as many games.
“We closed it out in a big way,” coach Todd Bowles said. “Some things we need to work on, obviously. ... I’ll take the first drive. I thought I made two bad calls that put them in position to get points early and I apologize for that. But at the same times, those guys don’t quit and came back and made some big plays.”
Bowles credited defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers for calling the stunt play with Barrett to loop inside and be in a position to either rush Fields or drop into coverage. He felt the middle screen pass coming to Bears running back Khalil Herbert, stopped his rush and drifted back a step before grabbing the football.
“He threw it right to him,” Bowles said. “And Shaq’s a very heady guy. I think he had a sack along with it. It’s good to see him back to normal.”
Of course, nothing has been normal since Arrayah died.
But on the field, if Barrett can return to the Pro Bowl form that allowed him to lead the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019 after signing a one-year, $5 million prove-it contract, the Bucs will be tough to move the football against. The defense has allowed only 17 points in each of the first two games.
“It feels good just be back on a playmaking side of things,” Barrett said. “I know even if I wasn’t making plays, just like all the work I put in the offseason, doing rehab and all that felt good and I knew I was back even though … like last week didn’t say that I’m back. But I thought that I was back for a while now. And it’s just good to get them plays, those game-changing plays like I’m accustomed to, to affirm that.”
After his interception, Barrett gave his shoutout to Arrayah into Fox’s camera. He hugged general manager Jason Licht on the sideline.
Bucs receiver Mike Evans, who had a monster game with six catches for 171 yards and a touchdown, said the moment lifted everyone.
“That’s awesome man,” Evans said. “He was looking into the camera. The camera was in his face. He gave a shoutout to his baby girl. It was an awesome moment. Everybody felt it. And you know, he’s a great player. One of our best players and he sealed the win for us today.”
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