Buccaneers DL Vita Vea shows how you can dominate a game with no tackles

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Tackling statistics are funny things. There are linebackers who rack up hige totals year after year, and it hides the fact that they can be innocent bystanders in the right place at the right time… well, a lot of the time. Cornerbacks and safeties with large tackle totals may have them because their coverage is sub-par. And interior defensive linemen may be the most mis-represented players by way of these numbers, because tackle totals don’t tell you anything (or at least very little) about the player’s effect on the game.

Exhibit A in the 2021 NFL season came in the opener between the Buccaneers and Cowboys on Thursday night. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Vita Vea was as utterly dominant as any IDL you’ll see all season, but he didn’t register a single official tackle. Last season, Vea missed Week 6 through the divisional round of the playoffs, and he registered just seven solo tackles all season, but the Bucs’ defense was an entirely different animal when he was on the field. Per Sports Info Solutions, Tampa Bay allowed an Offensive EPA of -0.05 when Vea was off the field, and -0.18 when he was in there. As defensive advanced metrics are generally better when they’re negative, that tells you how important Vea is.

Vea was incredibly important with his very presence against the Cowboys, who ran the ball just 18 times for 60 yards. Dak Prescott set a Week 1 NFL record for completions with 42, and he played marvelously for the most part, but the Cowboys also knew that last season, the Bucs allowed 4.0 yards per carry when Vea was off the field, and 2.8 yards per carry when he was active.

So, Vea was going to have to be a pass disruptor, and the stats show that he’s rather good at that, as well. The Bucs created a blown block pressure rate of 13.8% last season without Vea, and 19.2% with him. Basically, with Vita Vea on the line, Tampa Bay was creating disruption on one of every five passing plays.

Not bad at all.

“He plays a very pivotal role in our defense,” general manager Jason Licht said in April, when the team picked up Vea’s fifth-year option. “When he’s in there, a lot of things happen for not just him but everybody else around him. The day that we found out that he was going to come back and play…it was a very big day for all of us. It was a very exciting day. Coaches, scouts, players, owners, everybody – we were all very excited.”

Pro Football Focus credited Vea with one quarterback hit and six total pressures against the Cowboys, which gives you a slightly more accurate indication of his effect on the game in Tampa Bay’s 31-29 win. Vea was all over the place on his 54 defensive snaps, and he wasn’t too bad on his one offensive snap, either.

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How can a player with no tackles and one snap as a fullback take over a game? Let’s go to the tape and see exactly how it happened.

Preventing big plays with pressure

Per his Next Gen Stats spray chart, Prescott attempted just five passes of 20 or more air yards in his 58 total attempts, and pressure had a lot to do with that. All five of those deep attempts came against the blitz, and Prescott completed two of those passes to his own receivers, and one to his opponent. https://twitter.com/NextGenStats/status/1436188586945048589?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Eembeddedtimeline%7Ctwterm%5Eprofile%3ANextGenStats%7Ctwgr%5EeyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19%7Ctwcon%5Etimelinechrome&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fnextgenstats.nfl.com%2F Let's start with Dallas' final functional offensive play of the game -- a third-and-16 from the Tampa Bay 40-yard line with 1:37 left in the game and Dallas down, 28-26. Prescott had receiver Cedrick Wilson open on the deep out from the inside slot, but because Vea just bullied left guard Connor Williams into the pocket, Prescott had to give up on the deep shot, and throw it underneath to Amari Cooper on the stop crosser.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein booted a 48-yard go-ahead field goal on the next play to overcome his earlier yips, but as we all saw, when you give Tom Brady time to come back... well, we all know how that generally works out. If Prescott has time to hit Wilson up top, the game could have very well turned out differently.

Creating down-and-distance nightmares by forcing holds

Why did the Cowboys have third-and-16 on that play? Because on the previous play, Vea gave Williams an unpleasant two-way choice -- allow his quarterback to get smushed by the 6-foot-4, 347-pound Vea, or literally hold on for dear life and take the 10-yard penalty. Williams chose Option B -- otherwise, he had no shot of stopping Vea's ridiculous push.

Allowing opportunities by blowing up double teams

One reason the Buccaneers' fronts are so dominant when Vea is on the field is that he'll frequently take on double teams to create opportunities for other defenders. With 2:23 left in the game, Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith was busted for holding end Jason Pierre-Paul, but watch also how Vea took Williams and center Tyler Biadasz to the woodshed, giving Pierre-Paul the edge to that side, and creating protection issues to Prescott's front side, as well. Vea isn't just soaking up these doubles, either -- he'll push two guys into the pocket with alarming consistency.

Creating impossible matchups in Bear fronts

Imagine you're a center facing Vea in a one-on-one situation. You snap the ball, you have the protection call, and you know that you're going to have to deal with Vea head-up with no help. In this case, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles created that with a Bear front -- putting the two ends (Ndanukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul) to the guards' outside shoulders, forcing the guards to work outside. Most of the time, this is going to be a really unpleasant experience for you, because unless your timing and leverage are perfect, Vea is just going to bull-rush you into a place you don't want to be, and where your quarterback REALLY doesn't want to be.

Stopping plays from every position

Vea had a large hand in the end of the Cowboys' first offensive drive, lined up where you wouldn't expect him to be -- as a ginormous edge-rusher. And this is more diabolical stuff from Todd Bowles, who's one of the more enjoyable defensive minds to watch. Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White were mugged up in the A-gaps, and at the snap, White and rookie edge-rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka dropped into coverage. Vea, who played 15 of his 338 snaps last season as a right-side edge defender, just worked Tyron Smith right into Prescott’s kitchen. That’s a failed play on third-and-15, and the end of Dallas’ chances to score first.

Former Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz detailed the difficulties inherent in this particular front look. https://twitter.com/MitchSchwartz71/status/1436351904402006022 Add Vea on the edge, and things become nearly impossible.

Pay attention to Vita Vea's impact all season.

Hopefully, Vea stays healthy all season, because if he does, it allows Bowles to unleash every package in his playbook, and Vea will be able to wreck every offense he faces. Whether he records an official tackle or not.

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