There will be no rookie wall for Vita Vea. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young defensive tackle is running into anything down the stretch of his debut NFL campaign, it's a people-mover.
Actually, that's exactly what the Buccaneers were trying to add when they used the 11th overall pick in the 2018 draft, on Vea: Someone who could move people at will, even very large and strong people. Vea himself runs 6-4 and 347 pounds, and he boasts not only incredible strength but the type of surprising agility that had him blocking punts and covering kickoffs at the University of Washington.
More to the point, the Buccaneers wanted a force for the interior of their defensive line, a player who not only commanded double-team blocks but was able to get off those blocks and make plays at the line of scrimmage, and sometimes behind it. And they are just starting to get that player. Vea's rookie season got off to a slow start thanks to a calf injury early in training camp, and when he did get on the field it took some time to rev up. Now in the final third of the season, where the production of many rookies starts to tail off thanks to the rigors of the NFL's longer and more demanding schedule, Vea is instead just starting to hit his stride.
"Vita is really starting to play exactly like we watched on his college tape," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "He’s playing violent, he’s running to the football, getting off blocks so much better and making plays laterally as well as just knocking the line of scrimmage back. It’s too bad that Vita had to start the year off like he did missing those eight weeks, but he’s really starting to come into his own."
In Sunday's Week 15 loss at Baltimore, Vea contributed a career-best nine tackles and was conspicuously active right from the start. He stopped running back Edwards after a gain of just one on the Ravens' second play from scrimmage, helping force a three-and-out, and later in the first quarter sniffed out a pass to running back Kenneth Dixon and got him down after a gain of just two. The Ravens' rushing attack, which has been nothing short of destructive since fleet-of-foot rookie Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, did gain 242 yards on 49 carries, but Vea still made an impact on a number of snaps. On the nine plays on which he was credited with a tackle, the Ravens got a total of 22 yards, and seven of them picked up two or fewer yards.
"I thought I did good," said Vea of his efforts against the Ravens. "I've still got some things to work on after I see the film. It felt good being out there but we didn't get the outcome we wanted."
Vea is still working to improve his footwork and drill down on all the technique details of playing his position in the NFL, but he has made great strides in those areas in recent weeks. The results are showing on the field. In his first seven NFL games he recorded three tackles, one sack for zero yards and one quarterback hit. Over the past four contests, he has 18 tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. On Sunday, he became the first Tampa Bay defensive tackle to have nine stops in a single contest in 11 years.
"I just try to keep getting better," said Vea. "We all always live by that – never be satisfied and try to do more and more, as much as I can to help the team. I think now I'm just comfortable with it. The game's slowed down for me. Just getting back in the flow of things."
The turning point for Vea – a noticeably strong outing in the Bucs' Week 12 win over San Francisco – came a few days after General Manager Jason Licht pulled him aside on the practice field with some words of advice. It wasn't so much the specifics of the message, as he'd been hearing some similar thoughts from Defensive Line Coach Brentson Buckner and Assistant Defensive Line Coach Paul Spicer, as much as it was the messenger.
"He came up to me in practice and just told me to be violent," said the rookie defender. "Same thing that Buck and Spicer have been telling me, but just hearing it from him and finally seeing the bigger picture and going back into the meeting room and finally understanding what Coach is telling me. Finally, everything is making sense.
View Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker's best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 15 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
"I feel like as a D-Linemen you have to be violent because of the position we're playing and the demands of it. You've got to be violent in there to get the job done and do the technique that we're taught."
Vea's calf injury occurred early in his first NFL practice in pads, three days into training camp. It was a significant injury that wiped out his entire rookie camp and preseason, as well as the first three games of the regular season. While he worked hard on his conditioning during that down time and even trimmed up a bit, there was still a period of adjustment to actually playing in the NFL, which he would have gotten earlier if not for the injury.
He wasn't productive early and, while he was showing flashes of his strength, occasionally driving blockers into the backfield, he was having difficulty disengaging from those blocks and actually making plays. He got a bit more playing time early in his return than the Bucs initially intended because veteran defensive tackle Beau Allen missed several games with an injury of his own, but his snaps dipped with his lack of production.
In Games 8-10, Vea played 20, 28 and 18 snaps, respectively, or 38.2% of all the team's defensive plays in those weeks. However, he got 37 snaps each in Games 11 and 12, or 55.2% of the total, and as that added playing time started to lead to big plays on the field, the coaches leaned on him even more. Over the past two games, Vea has played just under 80% of the Bucs' total defensive snaps.
"I just think it's just [a matter of] finally getting used to it and getting back into the flow of things," said Vea. "I knew I just had to get back into the game, being that I was out in training camp and stuff. I kind of rushed back in and thought everything was going to happen just like that, but I let the little things slip. I tried to go for the bigger picture and I thought I was play like I was in college, but it doesn't work like that."
And it usually doesn't work like this in the NFL. Rookies are more likely to encounter that fabled wall in December, not finally hit their stride. Vea's rookie journey has been a little different, and occasionally rocky, but he's clearly finding his footing in the stretch run.