The Super Bowl-bound 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been built largely through the draft, the most notable exception being, of course, quarterback Tom Brady. If the Buccaneers start Super Bowl LV with the lineups on their most recent depth chart, they would have 13 homegrown draftees among their 22 starters, in addition to undrafted free agent signee Cameron Brate.
That's particularly true on defense, where eight of the 11 projected starters are Buccaneer draft picks, and that's true whether the team starts in base (with DL Will Gholston) or in a nickel (with CB Jamel Dean). The big exception on that side of the ball: edge rushers. The Bucs would probably not be in Super Bowl LV if they hadn't hit in a major way on one prove-it free agency deal and one potentially risky trade.
Look no further than the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. The Bucs needed to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers in order to force some turnovers and miscues, and they managed to sack him five times, matching the highest total Rodgers endured all season. All five were recorded by the outside linebacker duo of Shaquil Barrett, the 2019 free agent gem, and Jason Pierre-Paul, the 2018 home run trade acquisition.
"Me and Shaq are just playing, man," said Pierre-Paul, who led the team in the regular season with 9.5 sacks and had two more in Green Bay. "Shaq goes out there and he plays, and if he gets a sack, I want two. If I get two, he wants three. That's just how it goes. We try to talk to each other – 'Let's get to the ball. This down, I've got it.' Stuff like that. Me and him are a great duo together and that's all I can really say. We're both relentless to the ball and we try to get to the QB."
That is exactly how it went in Green Bay. Barrett had the team's first sack on the Packers' third play of the game, forcing a punt. Pierre-Paul had the next two takedowns of Rodgers, including one late in the first half that came right before an interception by Sean Murphy-Bunting. Now down two sacks to one, Barrett got to three in the fourth quarter, with both big plays helping to create three-and-outs after a pair of Brady interceptions. Notably, all five of those sacks came on four-man rushes, the kind of pressure that could be game-changing against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City in the Super Bowl.
"It's good to know we're living up to the expectations," said Barrett. "It's important to be able to get to the quarterback with a four-man rush, and that's what we've been able to do so we can have more guys on the back end because they do have some dangerous receivers. It's been nice knowing we can get it done with the four-man rush and even with the blitz."
The Bucs signed Barrett in March of 2019 to a one-year deal, giving him a chance to start after he had shown flashes as a situational rusher for a loaded Denver front seven. He immediately set a new Bucs single-season record and led the NFL that season with 19.5 sacks, earning the franchise tag for 2020. The trade with the Giants for Pierre-Paul before the 2018 draft has paid off as well, as the former University of South Florida star has 32.5 sacks in 45 games for Tampa Bay, including the playoffs.
"We get a lot of sacks like that, working off each other and doing our own rushes, not even having to compensate off each other because it's just natural," said Barrett. "He's still giving me all the tips and stuff. He reminds me of a D-Ware because D-Ware had some tips and stuff for me in the season, and how to watch film and stuff like that. JPP is calling me, letting me know what he sees on film. It's just been working really good."
Together, Barrett and Pierre-Paul have given the Buccaneers 50.5 sacks over the past two seasons. The rest of the defense has combined for 44.5 sacks in that time span. It's understandable that Barrett and Pierre-Paul would believe they can be a driving force in a Bucs Super Bowl victory. Barrett was part of the edge-rushing rotation for the Broncos in Super Bowl 50 against Carolina, which Denver won in no small part due to seven sacks, including 2.5 by game MVP Von Miller. What Miller told Barrett and the rest of the Broncos edge rushers leading up to that game still resonates with him.
"I remember Von talking to us, just motivating our position group, saying, 'They ain't never played a team like us,'" said Barrett. "It could come down to us. We can control the game. If we affect the quarterback it can be all on us. He was determined to get it by any means, like don't let failure be an option, and that's what I'm on right now. We came too close to start all over next year without a ring."