Exiting Thursday night’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears, the Bucs lost more than just the game.
A few of the big storylines coming out of Chicago’s 20-19 victory over the Buccaneers was how opportunistic the Bears’ offense was, how the matchup between pass-rusher Khalil Mack and right tackle Tristan Wirfs lived up to the hype, and how Tom Brady once again was foiled by the likes of Nick Foles.
But for Tampa Bay, the worst thing to come out of that matchup wasn’t the loss of the game, but rather the loss of their starting defensive tackle Vita Vea.
Vea, who was having yet another strong game in what was shaping up to be the best season of his career to date, got his leg rolled up on in the second half. It was an injury that had Vea in a lot of visible pain and resulted in him being carted off the field. On Friday morning, it was confirmed that Vea had suffered a broken ankle.
The blow is a big one for the Buccaneers, whose defense was off to a hot start in 2020, and a major catalyst for that was the presence of their third-year nose tackle.
Vea was drafted No. 12 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. The talk of Tampa on draft night after the pick was all sorts of questions as to why the Bucs would take a space-eating nose tackle over the likes of a playmaker their defense desperately needed in someone like safety Derwin James, who was selected five picks later. As James went on to be named first-team All-Pro and was selected to the Pro Bowl that year, Vea’s eight games started on the season brought even more questions, as his impact was low.
When you’re selected in the first round, the expectation is that you can make an impact right away. But Vea’s outlook was never going to be on the same path to that of James’ or most of anyone else in his class. Vea’s first year was about getting his massive body in the right shape. It was about strengthening his conditioning and laying a football foundation with technique and discipline. While at Washington, Vea often won by simply being bigger and stronger than everyone he faced in the Pac-12. He was an uber-athletic 350-pound man who would often command double and even triple teams at the college level, just off presence alone.
He learned quickly it would take a lot more than just being big to win in the NFL.
So, over the last two seasons, Vea has grown in his game. He has learned how to master leverage and positioning. He has become the ultimate space-eater and anchor in run defense with some plus disruption thrown in there as well on passing downs. It has taken some time to get to this point (people forget that it often does), but if you look at the best nose tackles around the NFL, there aren’t many, if any, better than Vea.
As the centerpiece of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense, Vea is the foundation of everything the Buccaneers want to do. Right now, the Buccaneers boast the second-best run defense in the NFL with fewer than 300 yards gained on the season, and they also ranked second in run defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. According to Pro Football Focus, Vea’s season grade for 2020 is a 90.4, which is an elite score, and behind only Tyson Alualu and DeForest Buckner at the defensive line position.
Vea commanding double teams and manning multiple gaps in the middle allowed for Ndamukong Suh to face and win more one-on-ones as a 3-tech defensive tackle. It also freed up edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett to get wide and put offensive tackles in tougher spots with more space to block with less help. Vea’s commanding presence in the middle also freed up linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White to threaten as successful A-gap blitzers at any point in time (something Bowles leans heavily on).
Simply put, the entire structure and success of what the Buccaneers have done this season on defense started with Vea being a force in the middle.
Now Vea will have to watch from the sidelines, which is a shame since he was on pace to truly have a career year. With two sacks in five games, Vea was on pace to beat his previous sack record of 3.5 in a single season. He was playing more than 70% of the team’s defensive snaps, which was the most consistent work he had seen in his career—a testament to the work he’s put in to get his body right with conditioning.
Tampa Bay won’t be completely high and dry. Rakeem Nunez-Roches has been with the team for multiple seasons and has experience playing in Vea’s role. Nunez-Roches won’t have the space-eating capabilities Vea does—Vea out-weighs him by about 30 pounds—but he and his fellow interior defensive lineman Will Gholston can provide a decent rotation with Suh to keep the interior strong.
There is a backup plan, but make no mistake, Vea was an integral part of what Bowles and the Buccaneers defense does so well, and his presence will be missed.
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