Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaq Barrett had eight sacks through the first three games of the season, including a three-sack outing against Carolina in Week Two that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week, and which he topped a week later with four sacks against the Giants. Barrett has acknowledged the role that his teammates in the defensive front have played in his historic season-opening explosion, drawing attention from blockers away and thus creating one-on-one pass rush opportunities for him.
Obviously, Barrett has done an incredible job of taking advantage of those opportunities, and he doesn't seem anywhere close to slowing down. One might expect his run of impact plays to force opposing defenses to adjust, to potentially treat him as the number-one problem and in the process shifting those one-on-one opportunities to someone else on the line. In a similar way, opposing defenses have had trouble deciding whether Mike Evans or Chris Godwin is the biggest threat in Tampa Bay's offense and have suffered from whichever poison they've picked from game to game.
Yes, one might have expected the Los Angeles Rams to put their double-teams on Barrett in Week Four, but it didn't happen.
"I think they stayed to their game plan; it worked pretty good for them," said Barrett, with no apparent sarcasm. "I mean they didn't win, but I didn't do as much as I did the previous weeks. All I want to do is impact the game – I don't have a certain amount of numbers or stats I want to get. I just want to impact the game, so that people know I played."
Mission accomplished. No Barrett didn't have another four-sack game but he most definitely made an impact with one more sack, this one causing a fumble that resulted in the game-clinching touchdown. He also laid a hit on quarterback Jared Goff that created an interception and even snared a pick of his own, the first of his career. At this point, Barrett hopes that opposing teams continue to underestimate him, or at least to send that message by not choosing to make him the focus of their double-teams.
"[I'm] very surprised that it's not coming, but that motivates me more," he said. "Like, 'Alright, y'all going to keep sleeping?' [I'll] just keeping going out there and just playing the game I've been playing and hopefully my numbers keep going the way they've been going."
Barrett has not had numbers like this in his career before, but they aren't completely out of the blue. He played four seasons for the Denver Broncos after one year on the practice squad, originally arriving as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State. He was part of an edge-rushing rotation but never a starter. In only one of those four years did he play in 50% or more of the Broncos' defensive snaps, but he produced 14.0 sacks in that span.
Barrett played a total of 275 snaps last year in Denver, producing three sacks. As a starter in Tampa he has nearly matched that playing time already through four games, with 253 snaps. He's been on the field for 83.8% of the Bucs' defensive snaps. This is the bottom-line opportunity he has been given, leading to those many one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. You've got to be on the field first. Barrett thinks he's come to this opportunity at just the right time.
"I came into the league with a bull rush and a double swipe, so I've been developing ever since I got into the league, just trying to study film from the guys in front of me," he said. "And then I was on the practice squad, so I was able to work my moves against the starting tackles and stuff. It hadn't really been until maybe Year Four or Five when I really felt like I developed and I'm ready to really contribute. The roles I was in my first four years, I think that was perfect for me. I wasn't ready to be a consistent starter, but now I feel like I am ready now and everything is just working out."
Barrett enumerated some of the pass-rush moves he's added to flesh out his arsenal but also said it's a matter of feel. Some moves have to be set up by actions earlier in the game, some work better when you flip to the other side of the line and go against an unfamiliar opponent. Some "moves" are just the application of several techniques involving hand placement and leverage. Barrett learned a lot in Denver and his new coordinator, Todd Bowles, can tell.
"Shaq understands the game," said Bowles. "He's a very savvy player. He understands the game very well, he works on his technique, he's done a great job against the run, which goes unnoticed. Obviously, that sets up his pass stuff. He has an arsenal and a toolbox that he uses and he strives to get better every day and that's just a credit to him."
Barrett won't know if the Saints will follow the Rams' lead when the Buccaneers visit the Superdome on Sunday, or if he will finally become enemy number one. That might change which of the Bucs' defenders is given the best shot at getting to the quarterback, but it won't have any effect on Barrett's approach.
"[I'll] Just keep doing the same thing I was doing," he said. "Just play football – go out there and read and react, look at my keys and just play football. That's behind me. I love all of the recognition, but I just want to play football. That's all this is about for me: winning and playing football."