Beginning in Week Six, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' on-the-rise defense will be missing what has literally been a very big part of their early-season success in 2020. Defensive lineman Vita Vea, a magnet for double-team blocks, suffered a broken leg late in the Buccaneers' Thursday night Week Five game in Chicago and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday.
Tampa Bay selected Vea with the 12th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, and the 347-pound lineman got off to a slow start as a rookie due to a training camp leg injury. Vea started the last six games of that campaign, however, and made a much more noticeable impact down the stretch. From the beginning of 2019 on, Vea started every game at nose tackle in Todd Bowles' new Buccaneers defense, and it's no coincidence that since the start of last season Tampa Bay has led the NFL in rush defense, allowing just 70.1 yards per game and 3.13 yards per carry.
Vea, whose strength and size makes him frequently immovable, was at the heart of that run defense, but there were, and still are, plenty of other good run-stopping defenders around him. That includes defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston, rangy inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White and stout outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. The Buccaneers will lean on those players and will likely remain among the best run-stopping units in the league. Whether they remain the best will depend upon how they fill that Vita Vea-sized void.
"I guess it's just the willpower," said Pierre-Paul. "With this defense, I don't think anybody can run on us. We take too much pride in letting the team come up here and just try to run on us and try to get it going – as well as the passing, too. I think with Vita [Vea] gone due to his injury, the next guy is going to step up and do what they need to do. Bruce always says, 'Talent isn't the thing for us. It's just the next guy stepping up.' I know he's going to do a great job."
Perhaps the most important figure in the Bucs' efforts to move on without Vea in 2020 is Bowles, the defensive architect. Bowles has worked wonders with a cast of young players he calls his "puppies" and has shown a knack for knowing when to dial up or pull back the aggression. Now the Bucs will trust him to put together a plan to replace Vea's contributions as well as possible, one that should include a big helping of Nacho, which is what teammates call defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches.
"It'll be Nacho," said Arians. "We'll rotate Khalil [Davis] in there and Anthony Nelson could play inside. We've got a bunch of different things that we can do. No one's going to be Vita, but Todd has a good plan."
The move to Nunez-Roches actually has its roots in the offseason. Nunez-Roches played 26% of the Bucs' defensive snaps last year, but the Buccaneers envisioned him specifically being the backup nose tackle in 2020 and expected his snap total to increase. Indeed, Nunez-Roches was in on 38% of the defensive snaps through the first five games. The Bucs asked him to add upper-body bulk during the offseason to hold up better in those role, which he did, and the results were noticeable when the players returned to the field. Few players on either side of the ball drew more buzz during training camp for their performance than Nunez-Roches.
"I think he has the perfect opportunity to show what he's got," said Pierre-Paul. "Obviously, he's never been in a situation like this before and I'm actually excited for him. I'm sad that Vita's gone, but at the same time, he gets to show the world and showcase his talent. Nacho, he's actually a good player, too. He just hasn't had the playing time so you could see. I'm actually waiting for Nacho to get out there and see what he can do."
Other than Nunez-Roches, the Buccaneers haven't really dipped into their interior-line reserves much so far. Patrick O'Connor, one of the team's better special teams players, has only logged seven defensive snaps and rookie sixth-rounder Khalil Davis has yet to be active for a game. Arians noted that the Bucs could also use the 6-7, 271-pound Nelson inside; so far all of his 63 defensive snaps have come while spelling either Barrett or Pierre-Paul on the outside. Tampa Bay's defense actually plays the majority of its snaps in a sub package, which typically only includes two down linemen, and the ones most likely to stay on the field where Vea and Suh. Gholston, who has a team-high seven QB hits, could see more action on passing downs now.
But clearly the Buccaneer most likely to see a big jump in playing time is Nunez-Roches, and he is more than ready. In fact, it has been his modus operandi to stay ready ever since he was asked to step up and make 16 starts for the Chiefs during the 2016-17 seasons.
"It was great," said Nunez-Roches of that stretch of added playing time in Kansas City. "Like I said, I've been here before. To be honest with you, it's not a big shocker as far as my role having to increase, because every time I come to work and in my whole offseason, I'm preparing to be a starter. If you're prepared to be a backup, you're in the wrong game. I come to work as if I'm going to be out there playing 50, 60 plays. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. I fit where I'm supposed to be at. But for my role to change, it doesn't change my preparation, it doesn't change my mentality. It's just understanding that my role is bigger and I have the opportunity.
"Don't count the plays, make the plays count."
The Bucs are riding a streak of three straight games in which they have held an opponent below 50 rushing yards, something never before accomplished in 45 seasons of Tampa Bay football. They've held 11 straight opponents below 100 rushing yards, another franchise record and the longest streak by any NFL team since 2014. Only one individual back has had a 100-yard game against the Bucs since the start of 2019.
All of those streaks will be difficult to maintain in Week Six because the Packers are bringing one of the NFL's best rushing attacks to town. Green Bay is averaging 150.8 yards on the ground per game and 5.1 yards per carry, with Aaron Jones, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher, leading the way.
"They've got a good stable of backs, very versatile backs," said Arians. "They look like wide receivers when they're split out wide. They spread you out [and] the run the ball really, really well out of the spread. [They] mix it up with a lot of motion, kind of like everybody's doing in the league right now. When they break a tackle, they've got enough speed to take it to the house. The big, chunk runs is something we've got to shut down."
Of course, the test extends beyond Week Six, as the Buccaneers know Vea will not be returning to their defense in 2020. But they have a plan, a coordinator well-trusted to enact that plan and a couple of former reserves eager to be the proverbial Next Man Up.