As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came down the stretch in 2021, eventually winning the NFC South and tying for the best record in the NFL, their defense held five of their last eight opponents to 17 or fewer points. And the most productive sack artist on that streaking squad wasn't Shaq Barrett or Jason Pierre-Paul or even Ndamukong Suh.
It was Anthony Nelson.
A fourth-round draft pick in 2019 who had an injury-plagued rookie year and a relatively minor role in the defense in 2020, Nelson hit his stride in the second half of 2021. He recorded 5.0 sacks in the last eight games, including one each in the last three, and there's reason to believe that momentum will be carrying on into 2022.
"Last year gave me a lot of confidence coming into this year and just another offseason of work," said Nelson after the Bucs' 26-24 preseason-opening loss to Miami on Saturday night. "More time in the defense, more time learning from guys like Shaq. Yeah, I feel more confident and I want to continue that rolling through the season."
The Buccaneers no longer have Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, like virtually all of the Bucs' starters, sat out on Saturday night. That put the spotlight on Nelson and third-year man Cam Gill, who are expected to round out the edge rush rotation with Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, and they didn't shy away from the glare. Both Nelson and Gill recorded sacks and also had another tackle for loss. There was plenty of havoc in the Dolphins' backfield and just as much reason to think the Bucs have the necessary pass-rushing depth.
"Everybody in our room is ready to step up, take on a little more, do more for this defense," said Nelson. "We want to be the most dominant room in the whole defense. We've all got to do a little more. We've been making great strides this camp. We've still got a ways to go, but I'm excited to see what Joe and Shaq and me and Cam and all the young guys [can do]."
Gill made his impression on the game early and then left with a foot injury. Presuming that ailment is nothing serious, he simply reinforced the idea that he is ready to deliver even more in an expanded role in 2022.
"Cam has been the ultimate professional," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "Every year he's got something different that he learned from the year before that he added to his game. When he first got here he was strictly power and he didn't know how to play it. His technique has gotten better, his awareness has gotten better, his drops have gotten better and he's still a tenacious rusher. We don't mind putting him in there. We don't feel like we lose anything when he goes in the ballgame. He's become very trustworthy."
Added Nelson of his trusted teammate: "Cam's been awesome. He's grown so much as a player and a pass-rusher since he got here. Great athlete, super powerful, super strong, explosive, all that. He's got all the tools and he's been putting it together. I think he's going to have a big year this year."