In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 season-opener at New Orleans, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul was responsible for the team's only sack of quarterback Drew Brees. Defensive lineman Will Gholston had a noticeably strong performance with seven stops and two tackles for loss, but otherwise the Buccaneers' down linemen combined for just two tackle assists.
Judging just from those individual statistics, one might think linemen Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea were well handled by the New Orleans' Saints blockers. And yet the Bucs limited Brees and the Saints' offense to just 270 total yards and allowed only 2.4 yards per carry. In the week following that game, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles explained just how valuable players like Suh and Vea are to what the Bucs are trying to do on defense.
"They command a lot of attention," said Bowles. "In a 3-4 defense, the nose and the tackles get doubled about 60 percent of the time – understand that. They play very good football, they eat up a lot of blocks – you take those two guys out of there and you try to play. We can't play without them, I'm very happy to have them [and] they will make their plays. It was the first game of the year and again, in a 3-4 defense, you're going to get taken care of a lot on the inside. It's not like a 4-3 where you just tee off and go after the quarterback or do something things. These guys are worth their weight in gold for us."
The price of gold will go up if the Bucs' interior linemen can repeat their strong work against the run – and they certainly have through the first two games – and also provide more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2020. Suh, Vea and Gholston combined for 6.0 sacks last year; they already have half of that total through the first two weeks of 2020.
All three of those sacks came in Sunday's win over Carolina, obviously, with Suh recording his first two-sack game as a Buccaneer to lead an overall five-sack effort by the defense. Gholston also recorded a sack plus a second hit on Bridgewater, while Vea had a tackle for loss. That game might have been an example of what Suh predicted during training camp – the high profiles that Pierre-Paul and 2019 sack leader Shaq Barrett created for themselves last year may at times flip the script on opposing team's strategies. More blockers sent to keep those two away from the passer could trigger more one-on-one opportunities for Suh and company in the middle.
"I think it's a sign of respect when it comes to the double-teams in those particular situations, when I get the slide in the pass-rush and things of that nature," said Suh. "I'm hoping because of Shaq's amazing year last year, and JPP and the nuances of Vita and all the other guys we have, that people start to forget about me and don't slide to me. I'd like to see a lot more one-on-ones and take advantage of those. That will remain to be seeen. I've always looked at my job as whatever is needed to get done I'm going to do, but I am going to join the party when it comes to making plays and getting things done."
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 2 matchup against Carolina.
Last year in New Orleans, the Buccaneers didn't sack Bridgewater once during the reserve quarterback's start in place of Drew Brees. The Saints' strong offensive line had a lot to do with that, but Bridgewater also has pretty good mobility and can make plays with his feet. He ran four times for 26 yards in the Panthers' season opener against the Raiders. The Bucs' quick pressure up the middle helped keep Bridgewater from doing that Sunday; it was the first time in his NFL career that he has started a game and not attempted even one run.
"I thought we had a good rush – especially our interior guys," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "They were focused on our outside guys a little bit and our interior guys got great push up the middle – Suh, Gholston. I thought Vita got held a couple times, but nobody's throwing flags this year, yet. I thought the pass rush was good."
The numbers were more robust in the stat line from the Bucs' Week Two game, but Suh and company have been a force in the middle since last season. Suh would like to collect more sacks, as he did for many seasons earlier in his career, and if he gets more one-on-one opportunities he likely will because his drive on the field hasn't slowed down yet as he enters his 11th campaign. Late in the first quarter, he got the first of his two sacks in Carolina territory, forcing a third-and-17. The Panthers then ran a screen to Christian McCaffrey, who eluded several tacklers and was working his way to the sticks. He never got there, though, because Suh had hustled down the field and to the sideline to make the tackle.
"There's a lot of attention on JPP and Shaq, but those inside guys have been disruptive in both ballgames," said Arians. "Tackles for losses, pressure on the quarterback – we had two or three sacks by those guys this week. [Ndamukong] Suh had a heck of a ballgame – great hustle plays chasing down screens 15, 20 yards away. They're playing at a high level right now."