Vita Vea's season didn't end in October after all. And that means the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense is getting some valuable reinforcement for the NFC Championship Game.
The Buccaneers are activating Vea from injured reserve, making him available to play in Sunday's conference title tilt in Green Bay. To make room for Vea on the 53-man roster, the team has waived guard Earl Watford.
Vea returned to practice this week, seeing his first action with the team since he suffered an ankle fracture in Chicago in Week Five. As recently as November it appeared very unlikely that Vea would play again in the 2020 season, but he made significant progress in December and the Buccaneers helped by extending their season with a pair of road playoff wins.
Though it's unclear how much Vea will play in Sunday's game, he adds power and another pass-rushing threat to a Buccaneers interior line that was at the center of the NFL's best run defense. Prior to suffering his injury in Week Five, Vea had 10 tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and three quarterback hits. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers allowed an average of 2.7 yards per carry with Vea on the field in 2020, and 3.9 with him off the field. The Bucs' pass rush had a 33.9% pressure rate when Vea was in the game but it dropped to 26.6% without him.
The Buccaneers drafted Vea with the 12th-overall pick in 2018, and after a late-season surge in his rookie season he had a breakout campaign in Todd Bowles' defense in 2019. A key factor in the league's best run defense, he also recorded 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and three passes defensed. He looked to be emerging as one of the league's young defensive line stars before his injury in Week Five.
Watford just rejoined the Buccaneers on January 15. He was inactive for the Divisional Playoff victory in New Orleans.