Vita Vea had 1.5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers six sacks on Sunday against the Chicago Bears and quarterback Justin Fields, a good start to the 2023 season after he recorded a career-best 6.5 last season. Vea had a total of three hits on Fields, and three hits from a player of Vea's size have to be particularly uncomfortable for an opposing quarterback.
The Buccaneers are obviously thrilled to get this type of pass-rush production from their nose tackle, which is not typically a source of many sacks. But even if Vea didn't frequently show up in that particular stat column, the team would still be thrilled with the impact that their 2018 first-round draft pick is making.
For instance, in a completely different part of the stat sheet, one will find that the Buccaneers gave up only 67 rushing yards against the Bears and have allowed an average of 54.0 per game through the first two weeks. Chicago had the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack in 2022 and Fields and company gained 122 yards on the ground in their Week One game against Green Bay.
In Week One, off-ball linebacker Devin White led the Bucs' defense with 12 tackles, and against the Bears it was safety Ryan Neal at the top of the list with eight. But there's little doubt that the Bucs' defensive front is making life easier for those defenders who roam behind them.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 2 matchup vs. the Chicago Bears.
"I think the guys are sacrificing for each other," said Head Coach Todd Bowles a day after the Bucs' 27-17 win over Chicago. "We know what our formula is to win on defense: stop the run and force them to be one dimensional and get turnovers if we can. That's been good [through] two weeks, so far – we've still got some things to shore up there. I'm not saying we've arrived because we definitely have not but it's a good start."
Vea, a 350-pound wrecking ball with the nimble feet and agility of a much smaller player, is at the center of that effort, quite literally. In the starting lineup on Sunday, he was flanked by defensive linemen Logan Hall and Mike Greene, and his ability to occupy multiple blockers and keep the middle of the field clogged helped those linemen move around more freely.
"They played hard yesterday," said Bowles. "They got off the ball, led by Vita. Vita did some great things to free the other two guys up. I think Logan is finding his niche and Mike is playing good football right now. If they keep getting along like that, hopefully about mid-season, we should hit our stride."
The Buccaneers have not yet named team captains for 2023, but Vea had his first year in that role in 2022 and is a good bet to get another "C" on his chest considering what he means to the defense and his growing voice in the locker room.
"He's grown into a great leadership role," said Bowles. "He got off the ball yesterday, quite a few times. He had a heck of a ballgame. He kind of closed down the middle of the field for us. He got pressure in the passing game."
Perhaps most impressively, Vea played 34 defensive snaps against the Bears, or 64% of the total, despite the fact that the Bucs came into the game six deep at down linemen. He and Hall tied for the most snaps in that unit, on a sweltering afternoon in which the "feels-like" temperature at 1:00 p.m. was 103 and on the rise. His full sack of Fields – he earlier shared one with Hall – came on the Buccaneers' second-to-last defensive snap of the game.
"His stamina as he continues to run, for a guy that size, is still really unbelievable to look at," said Bowles. "He plays hard, he plays tough and he's our anchor."
The Buccaneers have eight sacks through two games, a pace that would translate to a team-record 68 over a full 17-game season. There's no guarantee the defense can keep up that pace, or that Vea can surpass his career high in sacks from last year. Ultimately, though, that final tally won't tell the story of the impact Vea made on the 2023 defense. The truth will be between the numbers, as it was on Sunday against the Bears.