Sixteen different players recorded some kind of defensive statistic for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their Week One win over the Dallas Cowboys. Vita Vea was not one of them.
Vea, a 347-pound wrecking ball with immense power and nimble feet, definitely made an impact in the Bucs' 31-29 victory, however, and those who saw him forklifting Dallas blockers into Dak Prescott's personal space won't find that hard to believe.
Despite the Cowboys' loss, Prescott made an impressive return to the lineup, playing for the first time since suffering a gruesome ankle injury in Week Five of the 2020 season. He threw for 403 yards and three touchdowns, and he was only sacked once, largely because the Cowboys relied on a rhythmic quick passing game for much of the night. The one sack belonged to outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who kept the Cowboys from tacking on three points at the end of the first half with a huge 12-yard takedown of Prescott in Bucs territory.
As Head Coach Bruce Arians asserted after the game, the Buccaneers did manage to get some pressure on Prescott at times, and Vea was a big reason why. On one play for instance, Vea lined up wide outside of left tackle Tyron Smith – because Todd Bowles is an evil genius – and drove the Pro Bowler back into Prescott's path on a third-and-15. Prescott was unable to step into his throw and the resulting effort sailed wide of intended target CeeDee Lamb.
On another play that was making the highlight-reel rounds on Thursday night, Vea bulldozed center Tyler Biadasz 10 yards straight back and into the knees of Prescott, who ended up throwing his pass almost directly into the ground. Vea was not credited with a quarterback hit on the play, apparently because he used Biadasz as a blunt instrument without actually making personal contact with Prescott.
While we have mostly highlights and word descriptions rather than box score numbers to underscore Vea's dominance on Thursday night, we do have one statistic that tells the story, thanks to the NFL Next Gen Stats. That statistic is called "Average Separation from QB," and it is defined as: "A Pass Rusher's average pressure distance from the QB at the time of the passer throw or sack (in yards). Only includes passing plays where the defender is rushing the passer."
On Thursday night, nobody on either team got closer to the quarterback on average than Vea, whose Average Separation was measured at 3.50 yards. While Barrett got the lone sack, his Average Separation was measured at 4.64 yards. Here are eight primary pass-rushers that NFL Next Gen Stats tracked on Thursday and their Average Separation, in yards:
Vita Vea (TB): 3.50
Randy Gregory (DAL): 3.92
Dorance Armstrong (DAL): 4.39
Ndamukong Suh (TB): 4.62
Shaq Barrett (TB): 4.64
DeMarcus Lawrence (DAL): 4.65
Jason Pierre-Paul (TB): 4.70
Osa Odighizuwa (DAL): 5.10
Also according to Next Gen Stats, Vea had the best pressure rate of any Buccaneer pass-rusher on Thursday night. He was credited with a pressure on six of his 33 pass rushes, for a rate of 18.2%. Barrett was next with five pressure on 36 rushes for a rate of 13.9%. Overall, Tampa Bay was able to pressure Prescott on 17 of his 58 drop-backs, which isn't as dominant as, for instance, the Bucs' Super Bowl LV performance against Patrick Mahomes but was still impressive given how quickly the Cowboys were throwing the ball.
Like Prescott, Vea was lost to an ankle injury in Week Five of last season. However, Vea famously returned to the active roster for the last two playoff games and – again in the near complete absence of any counting stats – was widely credited for revving the Bucs' pass rush up to another level. It appears that Vea plans to keep doing exactly that in 2021.