Week Five in Chicago on Thursday Night Football is likely a game that many want to forget. Not only did the Buccaneers lose by one point, but they lost a vital part of their defense seemingly for the season.
Or so they thought.
Nose tackle Vita Vea went down with what turned out to be a fractured ankle. That night, however, he vowed to put his head down and work at his rehab after he was told there was a small chance he could have another shot this season.
"I think it was the next day or that night – I think I had it in my head," said Vea on Friday. "Obviously, I was down and out that night, but I think that night I told myself, 'If you just push through this, push through rehab, you might have a chance.' They told me I might have a small chance of making it, so I took those chances of what they said, and I really took it to heart. That's what I stuck with."
He was helped a bit by his team, of course. Vea wasn't able to return until the NFC Championship so that meant the Bucs had to get there first. "You keep winning, I'll show up," he told Head Coach Bruce Arians throughout the season.
The Bucs kept winning in large part to the unit that was still feeling the effects of Vea's absence. Luckily, in a scheme as diverse as the one Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles employs, they were able to adapt and make up for losing Vea while he did everything he could to return.
"I think there's a lot that goes into it," Vea said about Bowles' defense. "I think we're all on the same page. I think that's the key part. With us and each position group, I think everyone is tighter within their groups and closer with everybody on that defense that we're able to work well together. Also, Coach Bowles brings a lot to the table with all the different defenses he has for us. It's really set up for everyone to make plays and I think that's what has really helped for everybody."
Watching the game from a different perspective, often times on his couch at home for away games, allowed Vea a different perspective. He could see the strides the defense was making as an outside party looking in. The improvement was apparent to Arians, too.
"I think lightyears," Arians said of how far the defense has come since the beginning of last season. "Just the mixture of all those guys in the secondary [and] solidifying the front. Again, going into last season, we had to get Shaq [Barrett] back [and] we had to get [Ndamukong] Suh back. Keeping everybody there [and] now getting Vita [Vea] back. That secondary was the key. Getting guys that could play man-to-man, that were aggressive bump-and-run type people that could also play zone, rather than soft zone players. It took a while, but I think Todd has just done a tremendous job and we've been winning with defense."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Super Bowl practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
But while Vea was sitting back and watching, he was also working. The training staff had him in the weight room six times per week. Vea said defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh hooked him up with his own chef to make sure Vea was 'eating good' and eating good for performance's sake. Vea didn't miss a meeting, either. He stayed locked in the entire season with his teammates, making sure to keep tabs on how the defense was changing and evolving.
"I stayed over here," said Vea, referring to the AdventHealth Training Facility. "I stayed coming to meetings. I was coming to position meetings, defensive meetings and stuff like that. I think that just helped me stay locked in on football and really keep my mind off the injury and just focus on learning more about football."
It's likely why Vea was able to come back this season and not only play, but actually have a tremendous impact on the game. Vea played 33 snaps against the Packers. That's 46% of the defensive snaps overall. He didn't register any defensive stats throughout the game, but interior line stats are harder to quantify. Vea's showed up in myriad other ways, though. If you watch any of the five sacks the Buccaneers recorded on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, you can see it, too. The pressure he created from the interior and the blockers he occupied allowed both Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul more one-on-one matchups on the outside. They were the only two to officially get to Rodgers but it was a group effort. Vea got some individual recognition from the Good Morning Football crew, winning the Angry Scepter, given by Kyle Brandt for his performance in Green Bay. Vea became the second Bucs defensive player to win it and third overall player this season.
Vea picked up right where he left off in this defense thanks to his own individual efforts throughout his rehab. Now, they collectively get to go into Raymond James Stadium one last time this season to play for the Lombardi together.
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