Last season, Rakeem Nunez-Roches helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense remain effective by being its nose. This season, he's making a difference by being its mouth.
If that introduction, on the face of it, doesn't pass the eye test, lend me your ears for just another moment.
When Vita Vea went down with a serious ankle injury in Week Five of the 2020 season, Nunez-Roches – or 'Nacho' as he is known to his teammates and coaches – stepped into the starting lineup and ably filled that rather sizeable Vea void at nose tackle. The Buccaneers had the NFL's number-one rush defense went Vea went down…and they had the NFL's number-one rush defense when the season was said and done.
"He played really good, he played lights-out," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the seventh-year lineman. "Vita's Vita, but Nacho's one heck of a player, too. There wasn't a heck of a lot of drop-off."
Vea is back in the starting lineup in 2021, which has moved Nunez-Roches back into a reserve role, but the Buccaneers are still rotating their interior linemen liberally. In Sunday's win over Atlanta, for instance, Vea was on the field for 42 plays and Nunez-Roches was in for 31 plays. If we expand our definition of field, however, to include the surrounding grass and the Buccaneers' bench, then Nunez-Roches is making an impact even when he's not between the lines. His teammates, including edge rusher Shaq Barrett, credit Nunez-Roches with showing crunch-time leadership and a non-stop infectious energy.
"Yeah, Nacho has great energy all the time," said Barrett. "He's always keeping it real with everybody – just saying what needs to be said at the right time. He always good for that and then his energy is unmatched in practice every day and on the field. So yeah, it most definitely is."
The Buccaneers won that game against the Falcons going away, 48-25, but a big third-quarter rally led by Matt Ryan turned a potential laugher into a three-point game going into the final period. A holding call and a sack on the Bucs' next drive led to a punt and Atlanta had the ball back with a chance to continue their rally and take the lead. Nunez-Roches repainted the situation for his teammates.
"Sometimes I'll look in a guy's face and things aren't going the way we planned we kind of let the Falcons stay with us," he said. "And I was like, 'Look here bro, we're not losing. Come out here and play with energy. Play how you know how to play. We've the guys to win and just let your personality show in the game. So come out here and do what you do best and we're going to be alright.' That's what I kept telling them. I'm going to go. I told Lavonte [David], 'Whatever you need me to do, I'm going to do.' I just put my hand in the dirt and let it go."
That he did, and at just the right time. Facing a third-and-one at their own 13, the Falcons handed off to Cordarrelle Patterson, who had been breaking tackles all day. Nunez-Roches – notably in the game at a critical juncture – shot between right tackle Kaleb McGary and right guard Chris Lindstrom, neither of whom slowed down his progress a bit. Nunez-Roches met Patterson shortly after the running back got the ball and dropped him for a loss of three.
The Cowboys shanked the ensuing punt, Tom Brady hit Chris Godwin for a 12-yard score three plays later and the rest was clerical work. Nunez-Roches' play was an obvious turning point in the game.
"I think Nacho did a real good job getting us going on the defense," said Barrett. "He [was] up there in the huddle before we called the play – just talking to us, getting us going. Then he [goes] out there and makes some plays too. So that helped the energy get rolling."
That stop of Patterson was one of just two tackles that Nunez-Roches had on the day, but interior linemen often affect a game far more than the final stat line suggests. Vea, for instance, was the Bucs' most dominant pass-rusher in their Week One win over Dallas but his final stat line was blank after the game.
And more so in Nacho's case, because he's providing the energy boost that the Bucs' defense needs near the end of a long day. After the game and again on Monday, Arians pointed to the team's tendency to have lulls in their effort even in a game they are often dominating. Tampa Bay's defense had a lull in the third quarter, repeatedly having difficulty getting off the field on third down as Ryan led two long touchdown drives. Nunez-Roches helped them get back into gear and the defense allowed virtually nothing on Atlanta's last five drives while itself scoring twice on a pair of Mike Edwards pick-sixes.
"He brings it every single day, all day long," said Arians. "That's one thing about Nacho: He ain't going to shut up in practice, either. He's bringing it all day long and that's what I love about him. He's talking on the sideline – he's always got that energy and he's not going to let anyone get down."
And he's not planning to change that approach anytime soon.
"That's me, that's how I come to work," said Nunez-Roches. "I can't come to work being too serious. I can't come to work being too focused. Me playing, me talking, that's one of my things. I come to work down, people are going to ask me, 'What's wrong with you?' I'm like, 'Shoot, I'm just trying to be normal!' Just me coming around and talking my stuff, my crap, whatever I can do to get people going and put the fuel on the fire. It's just how I play the game and how I approach it. I love it and I can't hide it."