The key to Vita Vea piling up more sacks in his third NFL season and beyond is his feet. Or his hands. Or his eyes.
Maybe it's all of that, but the bottom line is that Vea and his coaches believe he can be a more disruptive pass-rusher and they are all working on ways to make that a reality, starting in 2020.
The Buccaneers drafted Vea out of Washington with the 12th overall pick in the 2018 draft, as they were smitten by his crazy combination of size (347 pounds) and athleticism (blocked punts at Washington). In his first two seasons he has recorded a total of 5.5 sacks, including 2.5 in 2019. Given how vital he has been to building the league's best run defense and drawing blockers away from the Bucs' edge rushers, that sack total is nothing to complain about. But Vea, who quietly started to emerge as one of the league's best young interior linemen last year, could get very noisy very quickly if he starts adding a bunch of sacks to his production.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
That's what Head Coach Bruce Arians thinks Vea needs to do to take his game to the next level.
"I think sacks," said Arians. "He did a good job of pushing the pocket, but he's nimble on his feet. He should be a heck of a pass-rusher with that bulk. But [use] his quickness also, and just continue to put moves in his toolbox, continue to get better and use that strength."
Count Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet among those who think that next step is going to take place in 2020. Marpet gets plenty of up-close opportunities to see what Vea can do in practice and he is now seeing a much more complete player than the one the Bucs drafted in 2018.
"I've seen tremendous growth," said Marpet. "When you talk about especially his pash rush, considering where he was at when he first got here to now, he is a weapon. I mean, he is really good. Kudos to him because he's come a long way in his pass rush and I think he's going to really give a lot of offensive linemen some issues in the pass game. Obviously, we know what he can do in the run game but, yeah, he's come very far."
So how does Vea get there? Well, Arians notes that the big man's quick feet should allow him to incorporate more moves into his game rather than just relying on his sheer power. For Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, the answer is really in Vea's other extremities.
"I think he just has to use his hands more," said Bowles. "We know he's big and powerful, but he's also fast and athletic as well. He's just got to get his hand placement down, use his hands more and not settle for the first time when he puts his hands on him and then try to bull [rush] him after that. He's just got to swipe and rip and do all those things that Coach [Kacy] Rodgers is asking him to do. He does that more [and] he'll be a little more effective."
Meanwhile, Vea plans to use his eyes. That's not in reference to some sort of field vision, but simply to watching as much as tape as possible, both of himself and what he's doing right and wrong, and of his upcoming opponents to figure out the best way to beat each one.
"The first step starts in the film room, watching film and seeing what's available, what moves I can do and learning from other people," said Vea. "And, watching film on the opponents and seeing how they pass. Also, just taking coaching from the coaches and working on what they tell me to work on."
In addition to his thoughts on Vea, Bowles also spoke about outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, the NFL's 2019 sack leader, and where Barrett could go from his 19.5-sack breakout. As defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh noted the other day, the dynamic could switch a little in 2020 if opposing teams put more focus on stopping Barrett. Instead of Suh and Vea producing one-on-one pass-rush opportunities for Barrett and the other outside linebackers, Barrett could end up doing that for the down linemen. Bowles said Barrett could help simply by "drawing attention." (Another double-digit sack season would be nice, too.)
If so, the Buccaneers could improve upon what was already a pretty decent sack total in 2019. With Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul leading the way, the Bucs racked up 47 sacks to tie for seventh in the NFL. However, only 6.5 of those came from down linemen, as Suh matched Vea's 2.5 while Will Gholston added 1.0 and Beau Allen got a half-sack.
The first opportunity to pump up that pass rush will be in New Orleans in Week One. Last year, the Saints were the first team to make stopping Barrett the priority in a Week Five matchup with the Buccaneers. Barrett was shut out for the first time that season and nobody else filled in the sack void. That proved to be the only game all season in which Tampa Bay's defense didn't get a single sack, but the Bucs also got Brees to the ground just once in the rematch in November. It would come as no surprise if the Saints focus on Barrett again on September 13, since it worked for them last year. Vea and company will spend the next couple weeks preparing for that, and the opportunities it could bring.
"I think we just have to hone in on our technique since we've [only] been here for three weeks," said Vea. "We didn't have any OTAs, we didn't have a real camp or a preseason. I think everybody has to hone in on their techniques since we're trying to make up for lost time. I think just studying the film, watching yourself and being your own worst critic about that and focusing on your technique. I think that's the biggest emphasis for us right now."