In an era where N.F.L. players coordinate their accessories to the smallest of details, Vita Vea stands out. Unlike his peers who adorn their arms with colorful sleeves or equip their helmets with tinted visors, the defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers takes a minimalist approach.
On game days, Vea goes bare-armed and glove-less in battles against offensive linemen. At 6-foot-4 and 347 pounds, he uses his massive frame at will against guards and centers, shoving them behind the line of scrimmage into quarterbacks’ laps as if they’re rag dolls.
“It just became a habit,” Vea said of the practice, which began with college teammates at Washington. “If I did wear gloves, I would just feel restricted.”
Choose any Bucs game this season — the opener against the Dallas Cowboys, their demolition of the Atlanta Falcons or a narrow victory over the New England Patriots — and there is footage of Vea forcibly moving another grown man from one area to another.
That production does not create distinctive statistics: In four games, Vea has only seven tackles and has yet to record a sack. But the havoc an elite interior lineman causes by attracting double teams and clogging gaps often allows their teammates clear alleyways to ball carriers and quarterbacks, for the stats that garner paydays and hardware.
What Vea excels at, and the outsized effect it has on a Bucs defense that ranks first in the league in rushing defense, can go unrecognized by those who watch his games casually. To the coaches and players who study him, though, his value is clear.
“He is one of the best players in this league,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said. He added, “He’s such a large individual that has such good ability, such good movement. He’s a problem. He’s a real problem.”
The defensive line’s interior has always been an important, but unrecognized, unglamorous position. Before 2017, the last defensive tackle to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award was Warren Sapp in 1999. The Rams’ Aaron Donald won it in 2017, 2019 and 2020, but he is viewed as an outlier to a traditional interior lineman because of his abnormal power and speed despite being undersized compared to peers.
Today, the 10 highest-paid edge rushers are paid on average about $3 million more annually than the 10 highest-paid defensive tackles, according to overthecap.com.
“Edge rushers get more sacks and make more plays, but in the end, we all have to work together,” Vea said.
Drafted No. 12 overall in 2018, Vea started 24 games his first two seasons, registering 63 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Last October, Vea fractured his ankle when his teammate, linebacker Devin White, crashed into it against the Chicago Bears. Team personnel carted Vea off the field and he missed the rest of the regular season. But he returned in the middle of the Bucs’ playoff run, and helped hound Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
Now healthy, Vea rattled the Cowboys’ offensive line in the league’s nationally televised season opener. In one sequence after Dallas’ 315-pound center Tyler Biadasz snapped the ball, Vea relocated him nearly 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage to the knees of Dak Prescott, who had to throw the ball away to narrowly escape a sack.
In the much-hyped Brady vs. Belichick prime time matchup, Vea for a moment stole some spotlight when he shish kebabed two Patriots linemen, Ted Karras (305 pounds) and Isaiah Wynn (310 pounds), clearing out a wide path for rookie linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to easily sack Mac Jones.
Against the Rams, Vea personally prevented two potential touchdown throws to DeSean Jackson. In the first quarter, with the Rams facing a third-and-10 from their 38-yard line, Vea bulldozed left guard David Edwards (308 pounds) into the pocket, causing Matthew Stafford to hurry his throw. It sailed short of Jackson, who was a step ahead of a safety downfield. In the second quarter, he fought through a double team from Edwards and center Brian Allen (303 pounds), prompting Stafford to again miss an open Jackson.
In those moments, Vea said, he does not realize the amount of force he’s exerting on another very large human being.
“I got to make the play,” Vea said. “That’s the only thing on my mind. I have to be destructive. I have to help out in some type of way.”
With Vea plugging holes and rearranging offensive lines, opponents have now focused their pass attacks on the Bucs’ young secondary, which has a bevy of key starters injured. Opponents average 47 passing attempts per game and the Bucs have allowed 1,310 yards, the worst in the N.F.L., prompting Tampa Bay to add veteran cornerback Richard Sherman.
To compensate for a position group in flux, more onus is on Tampa Bay’s pass rush to reach opposing quarterbacks. That includes Vea, who Coach Bruce Arians said can be even better than he has been.
“I’d just like to see him finish more because he’s been close about eight or nine times,” Arians added. “He’s one of those guys that could have multi-sack games. He’s getting close, he’s getting better.”
If Arians is right, Vea could be about to barrel his way out of the shadows.