The bad news for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is very, very bad: Defensive lineman Vita Vea is headed to injured reserve, ending what was shaping up as a potential Pro Bowl season. Vea, who is at the heart of a Buccaneers defense that currently ranks fourth overall, second against the rush and seventh in points allowed, suffered what Head Coach Bruce Arians termed a broken leg during Thursday night's 20-19 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Vea was injured while making a tackle for a loss of one yard on running back David Montgomery on what proved to be Chicago's game-winning field goal drive in the fourth quarter. That was one of Vea's three tackles in the game and he also recorded one of Tampa Bay's three sacks. The Buccaneers held the Bears to 35 rushing yards, marking the third straight game in which they held an opponent below 50 yards on the ground. That's the first time in franchise history a Buccaneers defense has accomplished that feat.
The loss of Vea comes one week after tight end O.J. Howard, another young player having perhaps his best season yet, suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon.
"It'll be a big loss," said Arians. "[When] you lose players like O.J. and Vita, you can plug the next man in, but they're not the same. I hate it for him because he was having such a great year."
Vea, a 350-pound force in the middle with incredible strength and nimble feat, was an integral part of the defense, often simply because the opposition had to use two blockers to keep him at bay. He finishes his third NFL season with 10 tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and three quarterback hits.
"I don't know if there was a better nose tackle out there. He was getting sacks. He was getting pressure up the middle. [He] got hurt on a great hustle play on the side going back and forth and it was really friendly fire that got his leg. He was playing really, really well."
Though they just came up short in Chicago, the Buccaneers powered their way through a short week with a long list of injuries to their offensive skill-position players. Wide receivers Chris Godwin and Justin Watson were out due to injuries, as was third-down back LeSean McCoy. Running back Leonard Fournette was active but only logged one snap. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Scotty Miller played through leg injuries and Miller did not have a catch. Tyler Johnson, Jaydon Mickens and Tanner Hudson all had their first receptions of 2020.
That's why the Buccaneers are hoping the bad news about Vea is balanced by some good news in the weeks ahead. After that quick turnaround following their win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, the Buccaneers now have a "mini-bye" before they return to action against Green Bay on October 18. That will give them a chance to get closer to full strength on offense even as the defense loses a key player for the first time this year.
"It's a good break for us right now because of the injuries," said Arians. "Hopefully we'll get some guys back offensively – we're obviously not getting back O.J. [Howard] or Vita [Vea], but it gives us a little time to plan on which direction we want to head in."
The most anticipated return among the Bucs' injured players is arguably that of Chris Godwin. The Bucs' leading receiver in 2019, he finished second in the NFL with 95.3 receiving yards per game. He and Evans formed the most productive duo of wide receivers in the league last season but that pair has seen very little time together on the field without at least one of them fighting through an injury.
Godwin has missed the last two games due to a hamstring injury after also sitting out Week Two with a concussion. The Buccaneers won't know until later next week if he can return against the Packers.
"It's way too early," said Arians on Friday. "I'm hoping he can do something by next Thursday."
The Buccaneers could use a healthier roster to face their upcoming stretch of games, especially after letting Thursday night's game and a chance to go 4-1 slip away. Of course, injuries have been a big part of the NFL's story in 2020 for many teams, possibly because the players had no offseason program or preseason games to prepare for the live action.
"Just get the guys healthy," said Arians of the next six weeks, which include four more prime-time games, two on Monday night. "You play them when they're scheduled. Obviously, we've got a lot of night games coming up and big games. Every single one is going to be huge going the rest of the way."