TAMPA — His helmet was twisted on his face so far to the left that he was looking out of his right ear hole. Vita Vea couldn’t see what he hit. He reached out with his left hand and pulled Titans quarterback Will Levis down like a window shade.
“That was crazy. I didn’t see the whole play,” Vea said. “I didn’t even know how I got the sack. It was just an out-of-body experience. I think that’s why I put him down so softly. I was blind.”
Years from now, Bucs fans should remember this image of Vea, the Bucs’ 6-foot-4, 355-pound defensive tackle, lining up on the edge at right outside linebacker, forcing Titans left tackle Andre Dillard to first jump offside and then powering his way to his team-leading 4.5 sack of the season. Always gritty, Vea stomped off the field leaving more mouths agape at his sheer speed and strength.
“It’s terrible. I did it last Thursday in two-minute (offense),” tackle Tristan Wirfs said of trying to block Vea off the edge in practice. “... Good luck, pal. That’s all I can say to that guy (who faces Vea).”
The Bucs have used Vea in this edge rush position before. But normally, they line up outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka inside and then run some kind of stunt where Vea loops inside.
It’s hard to believe but this is Vea’s sixth season. The 12th overall pick from Washington wasn’t very well-received when he got to Tampa Bay because so many fans wanted the Bucs to take Florida State safety Derwin James, who went five picks later to the Chargers.
Both are Pro Bowl players, but Vea has developed into an unblockable force on the field and a playful giant in the locker room.
Vea, now 28, married longtime girlfriend Alexus Atchley in 2022 and became a father to daughter Honey in May. Last Sunday, before heading into the locker room following warmups at Raymond James Stadium, he cradled his Honey in his arms like a miniature football, posing for portraits.
“I think that’s pretty cool for her to experience that and for me,” Vea said. “She won’t remember this, but I think one day to have the pictures to look back on will be something.”
While his family grows, Vea’s maturation as a player has also been fun to watch. When he arrived in Tampa Bay, he played alongside defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and later Ndamukong Suh, two large, loquacious personalities. Eventually, he found his voice in the huddle.
“He doesn’t speak out a lot but when he does, he’s very respected and everybody listens,” coach Todd Bowles said. “... He’s a lot more vocal when he’s in his own wheelhouse as opposed to just standing in front of the media. He has a lot more to say. But he takes things to heart.
“He really leads the right way. He talks a lot of mess as he does it but he’s enjoyable and it’s good for the team, it’s good for the camaraderie. He does a heck of job getting everybody focused and ready to play.”
It’s rare for a defensive tackle to lead an NFL team in sacks, but Vea did last season with 6.5. The addition of Calijah Kancey, the first-round pick from Pittsburgh, has added more speed next to Vea’s power, making it impossible to double team both. In addition to his improved pass rush skills, Vea also has 27 tackles (six for loss) and eight quarterback hits.
The fact that Vea has feet nimble enough to rush off the edge shouldn’t be a surprise. In 2016 at Washington, Vea was clocked by a Catapult tracker running 20 mph in a game against USC. His tape from his senior season at Milpitas High School in Santa Clara County is legendary: he rushed for 578 yards and averaged 12.3 yards per carry while sharing duties with BYU-bound Squally Canada.
“He’s a freak athlete,” safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said. “Vita is huge and the way he moves is unique and there’s not many people built his size that can move like that so having him on my team, it’s amazing.”
Bucs co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said Vea’s versatility has allowed Bowles to be even more creative this season.
“There was a lot of pressure on the guards because we had our bigs outside and just the versatility we have in him, Kancey, Shaq, (Markees) Watts — so many different people can move around in the rush and that really, really helps,” Rodgers said.
Vea said his sack last Sunday would not have been possible without the work he got in practice against Wirfs, the Bucs’ All-Pro tackle.
“Tristan is big and fast, too,” Vea said. “He’s faster than me. It’s one of those things where iron sharpens iron and I’m grateful to be able to work against him and prepare myself for game time. I know if I can do decent against Tristan, I should be able to do well on game day.”
But it’s been after those games when the defense hasn’t done well that Vea may be at his best. He was instrumental in helping the Bucs rebound from a 39-37 collapse at Houston two weeks ago. While coaches preached execution, Vea focused on restoring the energy.
“I think just watching the tape, we noticed that we still did a lot of good in that game,” Vea said. “We still grew. But unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good in that game. I think we’re just trying to build off the good we did. We didn’t lose sight, even though we lost, of the growth we had in that game. ...
“That was another main emphasis for us, to go out there and have fun and celebrate each other, everybody making plays, no matter how big or small. It was fun to see other people making plays. If you make a play and you feel the rest of the defense coming to jump on you, it gets you going.”
Vea says his playful nature is the result of normally being the younger kid hanging out with older cousins while growing up in California, just down the street from Levi’s Stadium, where the Bucs will play the 49ers on Sunday.
“I’ve always been the kid and the guy that plays around a lot, maybe too much sometimes,” Vea said. “Football is hard enough. There’s no point to make it harder.”
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