In a Week 12 win at Indianapolis, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got three sacks of Carson Wentz and two of them belonged to edge rusher Shaquil Barrett. This was not surprising; Barrett is the team's leading producer of sacks, both in 2021 (7.5) and over the last three seasons combined (35.0). Over those three seasons, the Buccaneers have had 18 individual two-sack performances, and Barrett has been responsible for seven of them.
In a Week 13 victory at Atlanta, the Buccaneers tied a season high with five sacks of Matt Ryan, and Barrett wasn't responsible for any of them. Instead, interior linemen Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh had two each and lightly-used reserve outside linebacker Cam Gill had the other one. As dominant as he has been for much of his young career, Vea had never had a two-sack game before. Suh certainly had, but this was just his second in three seasons as a Buccaneer. Gill didn't have two sacks in his career before last Sunday.
Whether the Buccaneers' recent surge in sacks has come from expected or unexpected sources, it has certainly been encouraging. Tampa Bay's defense has generated 15 sacks over the past four games after getting 17 over the first eight contests. One might wonder if the Bucs' pass rush is going to start heating up like it did last season, with 24 sacks over the final eight games, playoffs included.
If it does, it looks like it will be a group effort. That was certainly the case in Atlanta, where there was praise to be spread around all over the defensive front.
First there is Suh, who also had a sack of Wentz in Indy and is now second on the team with 6.0 on the season. This is the first time since 2014-15 that the veteran lineman has hit a half-dozen sacks in consecutive seasons, and he still has five games to go in 2021. The way the 34-year-old Suh is maintaining his level of play has Head Coach Bruce Arians believing he has a case for the Hall of Fame when his career is over.
"I'd say he's got a big case, yeah," said Arians. "If you talk about consistency and a great level of play for a long, long time, I don't know how many people have done it better than Suh. He's still a handful and he's got a regimen. It's just like Tom [Brady] – they know how to take care of themselves and they're in peak form on Sunday. I don't mess with either one of them – just get out on Sunday and play your ass off."
Meanwhile, Vea is much closer to the beginning of his career and could still be considered an ascending player. He has just 3.0 sacks this season after his big game on Sunday but is definitely getting around the quarterback on a frequent basis. In the win over Atlanta, Vea's average separation from the quarterback at the time of the throw was 3.16 yards according to NFL Next Gen Stats, easily the best for any player on either team. Next Gen Stats also gave him a 14.3% quarterback pressure rate on his pass rushes, the kind of number one expects to see from Barrett.
Arians was asked on Monday whether Vea's improvement in pressuring the quarterback this season was the result of shedding blocks better, adding moves to his arsenal or simply improving on the moves he already had.
"I think [it's] a combination of everything you just said," said the coach. "He's worked hard at it. He's got a couple little counter moves now. Just use that strength. God gave you a ton of strength, just use it. I think Suh's helping him in that regard also. They're a heck of a combination, the way they work together."
Will Gholston, another one of the Buccaneers' underrated interior linemen, didn't have a sack in the game but he was credited with three pressures on just 13 pass rushes for an astronomical 23.1% sack rate. Gholston also forced Ryan to make a desperate flip of the ball to avoid a sack on a third-and-two in the fourth quarter, leading to an intentional grounding penalty. That was arguably a better result for the team than what would have been a very short loss as it knocked the Falcons back 10 yards and led them to punt it away. The next time Ryan got the ball in his hands there was 1:49 left on the clock and his team was down by 13 points.
And then there's the Bucs' reserve trio of outside linebackers: Gill, rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and third-year man Anthony Nelson. Tryon-Shoyinka, the Bucs' first-round pick last April, sees the most time of the three and recently has been getting snaps from the three-technique spot on obvious passing downs. He had two pressures against the Falcons but, as has been the case on several occasions this year, he wasn't able to convert them into sacks or negative plays for the offense. Still, if he's getting consistently close there's hope for more production down the stretch.
"I think sometimes he comes in, he comes a little high," said Arian. "You can't hit them low and you can't hit them high. It's just learning that strike zone and then getting a big quarterback on the ground and finishing the deal. He's doing a heck of a job as an interior pass rusher because of the games and his speed. When he loops around, that's a fast dude coming around on those stunts, and that's helping Suh and Vita also."
Barrett and fellow starter Jason Pierre-Paul like to play a high volume of snaps and generally are granted that wish. However, the drafting of Tryon-Shoyinka was in part a nod to the idea that both of those veterans could be more effective on a per-snap basis if given a little more time off. With production from Nelson, who has six quarterback hits and two sacks in the last four games, and Gill, who has gotten his 2.0 sacks on just 17 total defensive snaps, the Bucs can rotate their edge rushers quite a bit more.
"No doubt, they're earning playing time," said Arians. "Anthony's obviously been getting better and better this year. Cam Gill, every time he gets out there he makes something happen. He's a high-effort guy and he's strong. So, yeah, they're earning that playing time and I think it's helping the other guys get a little more rest coming into December now."
The Buccaneers' defense has had some trouble getting off the field on third downs in recent weeks, which can be partially attributed to a consistently shifting lineup in the secondary due to injuries. But the best way to change that is to get pressure on the quarterback more consistently, and their three sacks on third downs in Atlanta was a welcome sight. With so many different players beginning to contribute to the effort, the Bucs pass rush may be ready to turn up the heat down the stretch.