Tampa Bay Buccaneers

AFC Edges NFC in Shaq Barrett's First Pro Bowl 

Buccaneers OLB Shaq Barrett, the NFL's 2019 sack leader, played a different sort of defensive role for most of Sunday's Pro Bowl but still saw his NFC squad fight to the end in a five-point loss

The NFL's 2020 Pro Bowl had all of that game's usual attractions – deep passes, tons of points, crazy pitch-around plays and lots of smiles and good sportsmanship. This particular edition of the league's all-star game, won by the AFC by a 38-33 margin, also featured an experimental "onside kick" replacement, an 82-yard fumble return touchdown that completely changed the game, and a receiver – Green Bay's Davante Adams – who caught two touchdown passes and also threw a 34-yard completion.

What it didn't have was many pass-rushing opportunities for Shaquil Barrett, the NFL's sack leader in 2019. Safe to say the Pro Bowl is not really about superstar quarterbacks getting knocked around.

Barrett was the lone active representative of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year's Pro Bowl, after wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans were forced to withdraw from the game due to late-season hamstring injuries. Barrett, Godwin and Evans will all forever have the 2020 Pro Bowl honor on their professional resumes, but only Barrett got to wear the Buccaneers' pewter and red helmet on the field at Camping World Stadium on Sunday.

Barrett did play a lot, however. He just didn't play, for the most part, the same sort of role that made him one of the league's breakout stars in 2019. An unrestricted free agent signing from Denver, Barrett took an opportunity to start in the Bucs' new 3-4 defense and turned it into a 19.5-sack campaign that earned him his first Pro Bowl invitation. He was the first Tampa Bay edge rusher to make the Pro Bowl since Simeon Rice in 2005.

The NFC team operated out of a 4-3 defense on Sunday against the AFC. The starting front four featured New Orleans' Cameron Jordan and Minnesota's Danielle Hunter, two of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in the NFL. Barrett was one of three starting linebackers along with Arizona's Chandler Jones and Dallas' Jaylon Smith. Both Barrett and Jones were primarily pass-rushers on their respective defenses; in fact, they finished first and second in the NFL in sacks, with Jones a half-sack behind Barrett. On Sunday, Barrett spent most of his time on defense "off the ball" in coverage.

Barrett finished the game with three solo tackles, officially. The NFC defense as a whole collected just two sacks, both by Green Bay's Za'Darius Smith. The two teams combined for 834 yards, all but 92 of it through the air, and exactly three punts.

Still, Barrett and the NFC squad fought to the end and actually had a 27-24 edge with 18 minutes left in the game after Adams' first touchdown catch. The AFC took the lead back on a 60-yard catch-and-run by Jacksonville's D.J. Chark, who appeared to be the beneficiary of a defense believing he would stop after a phantom "tackle" exhibition.

Chark's score came on one of only two throws by Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill. His second one was picked off by Smith, moments after another trick play attempt by the NFC resulted in Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott throwing an interception. That led to a first-and-goal opportunity for the NFC with a chance to regain the lead in the fourth quarter but Jacksonville's Calais Campbell sacked Minnesota's Kirk Cousins, forcing a fumble that Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt returned most of the length of the field.

Down by 11, Cousins and the NFC rallied for another touchdown, Adams' second, and then elected to try to get the ball right back with four and half minutes to play. The method was an experiment that could eventually work itself into the NFL's regular-season rulebook: To maintain possession, the NFC's offense had to try to convert a fourth-and-15 from its own 25-yard line. Cousins threw a very deep pass in the direction of Detroit's Kenny Golladay but it was intercepted by Baltimore's Earl Thomas, who initiated the aforementioned pitch-around play. Nothing came of that, but the AFC was able to run out the clock.

The AFC thus earned its fourth straight Pro Bowl victory, and Barrett's first experience as an NFL all-star ended on the wrong side of the final score. But he represented the Buccaneers well, even if he didn't get much of an opportunity to do what he does best.

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