The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied from a 21-10 deficit to beat the Carolina Panthers, 30-24, in Week 17 at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs secured the victory and clinched the NFC South in the process. The home team improved to 8-8, punching their ticket to the playoffs.
On the defensive side of the ball, outside linebacker Anthony Nelson had a breakout campaign. Following the matchup, right tackle Tristan Wirfs dubbed Nelson a "freak," for his stellar performance against the divisional foe. Two plays after Mike Evans' third-touchdown of the day, which provided the Buccaneers with their first lead of the clash, Nelson forced a turnover with a strip sack of Panthers' quarterback Sam Darnold. Tampa Bay's nose tackle Vita Vea recovered the ball at the Panthers' six-yard-line. The Bucs were able to capitalize on Nelson's momentum-shifting play with a Tom Brady one-yard touchdown rush, after Leonard Fournette was spotted a half-yard short on the review.
"He has been doing this," Joe Tryon-Shoyinka described. "Nelly [Anthony Nelson] is one of those dudes who shows up every week. He is smart and is really athletic. People sleep on him, but he is a big-time playmaker. I love him."
Rookie Ikem Ekwonu was left on an island with Nelson, and he quickly overwhelmed the blocker and attacked the throwing hand of Darnold, knocking him from behind. Nelson's strip sack of Darnold marked his third-consecutive game with at least 0.5 sacks and his second-straight game recording a strip sack. He has forced three fumbles in the last four weeks – the most in the NFL over that stretch. Nelson's physicality is contagious on defense, elevating the group. Over the previous two games due to injuries to the outside linebcaker corps, both Tryon-Shoyinka and Nelson have played every defensive snap. Nelson's role increased after Shaquil Barrett suffered a torn Achilles in the 27-22 loss to the Ravens on Thursday Night Football. Barrett's season came to a premature end, but in his absence, Nelson has risen to the challenge.
Nelson, the Bucs' fourth round draft pick in 2019, finished the 2021 season with a career-best 5.0 sacks and has surpassed that mark in 2022 with 5.5. The four-year veteran has taken significant strides forward, consistently wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage in this year's gauntlet. Nelson credits "tenacity" in pass rush meneuvars as an attributing factor to fostered growth this season.
"Never stopping, attacking low with it and keeping my feet towards the quarterback," Nelson stated. "That is the mentality I have taken from Shaq and the other guys I have played with."
Nelson possesses superb length, good quickness and a relentless motor that hums from snap to snap. He explodes out of his stance to attack upfield as a rusher and although he may be underrated, his sensational play speaks for itself. Against the pass, Nelson has a well-timed swim move that out-gains blockers in space. Additionally, he has a knack for reading/reacting to misdirection and setting the edge vs. the run. Week-after-week, his play has energized the defense and stalled opposing team's drives. Nelson has been a bright spot for the Buccaneers in 2022 and his play against the Panthers iced the win.
"For [Nelson], it's not hard because he had to play a lot last year," Todd Bowles said. "He played a lot last year. He's a confident guy – very quiet. He looks innocent, but underneath it all, he's a heck of a football player. He's a gangly-looking guy and he's got a little swagger to him that you don't know about. We have a lot of confidence in him."