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Shaq Barrett is reaping the rewards of an improving defense

The recent play of his defensive teammates has helped him regain his early-season form.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons
The Bucs’ front seven is rounding into shape.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s not often you see a player take of like Shaquil Barrett did earlier in the year. I mean, nine sacks through the first four weeks of the season is crazy. That doesn’t happen often.

In fact, it has happened only twice since 1983, before Barrett came along.

It was pretty remarkable, but in the NFL, players usually regress to the mean at some point. They may still be productive, but no one expected Barrett to keep up that pace. A 36-sack season isn’t possible in the NFL.

Barrett slowed down a bit over the next six games. He recorded just 3.5 sacks and he didn’t have a single quarterback takedown in three of the aforementioned six games.

A lot of that was due to the fact that the Bucs didn’t really have any other legitimate threats at pass rusher during that time. When you add in a faulty secondary, it’s easy for teams to scheme up ways to stop Barrett and not have to worry about anyone else. Plus, quarterbacks would usually have a way to get rid of the ball due to the ineffective secondary.

It was a myriad of circumstances that were holding Barrett back from the continuing to be the player we saw over the first four games.

But over the last two games, he’s been back to his havoc-wreaking ways. The former undrafted free agent has three sacks over the last two weeks, including a forced fumble in each contest. He had two sacks last week against the Jaguars, which was his first multi-sack game since Week 4.

Make no mistake: the first four games weren’t a flash in the pan. Barrett is a legit pass rusher that is entering the prime of his career.

But something has been different about how he’s been able to get to the quarterback over the last two weeks.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
Shaq Barrett has blossomed for the Bucs in 2019.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Arians gave a list of reasons as to why Barrett has been able to regain his early-season form during Monday’s media availability, and not only did it make sense, but it’s encouraging when you think of how this defensive corps has evolved and how it can be tailored for the future.

“The addition of Jason Pierre-Paul and the way Vita [Vea] is playing and the way [Ndamukong] Suh is playing in the middle, having Carl [Nassib] inside – just having those guys around him, he’s not getting all the attention – the tight end and the chip – so I think that’s helped him tremendously. And, the back end is doing a hell of a lot better – coverage is a lot better.”

So, let’s take a look at how the play of those around him has helped Barrett not only inch closer to a gigantic payday, but closer to Warren Sapp’s franchise record for most sacks in a year (16.5).

An Improving Secondary

We’ve wondered what this Bucs defense would look at maximum impact and this play is the perfect example of the potential that this defense possesses.

This is simply good execution at every level combined with the fact that Barrett makes a helluva play on Jake Matthews to get to Matt Ryan.

Barrett is standing up on the right side of the screen:

As you can see, Barrett takes an inside angle only to bounce out and circumvent Matthews, who has already bitten on the inside fake. Barrett then swats away Matthews’ hands while using his speed - and really good balance - at the top of the arc to blow by the veteran left tackle for the sack.

Here it is again in slow-motion. Watch Barrett’s left foot as he fakes the inside angle and then watch his hands as he rejects Matthews’ block:

But the secondary is what really helped make this possible. This play is designed to get the ball out quick, which is evidenced by Ryan’s three-step drop and the fact that the Falcons only left five in to block on 2nd-and-21. It looks like Ryan initially wants to go to Christian Blake out of the slot, but Carlton Davis III has him covered up.

Here is the all-22 angle of the play. Blake is in the right slot close to the bottom of the screen:

This looks like Cover 2 Man, due to the fact that there are two deep safeties and that the defenders are using trail technique with their assignments. The fact that the secondary was able to hold their own prevented Ryan from throwing the ball. That’s what allowed Barrett to finish this play, otherwise, it may have just gone down as a pressure.

Here is the still shot of Ryan looking Blake’s way as he sets his feet, with Davis in coverage:

Ryan then looks to Brian Hill on the wide side of the field, but Lavonte David has him covered up, as well:

David and Hill are at the bottom of the screen. It’s easy to see that David has him completely wrapped up:

By the time Ryan realizes he is out of options, it’s too late. Barrett has already thrown him into the ground and stripped the ball.

Scheme + More Secondary Help

This play is another example of good coverage, but Todd Bowles also dials up a nice safety blitz on this play that allows his guys to take advantage of their 1-v-1 matchups.

Which plays exactly to Barrett’s strengths and allows him to get the first of his two sacks against the Jaguars.

This time, he uses his speed and agility - plus a little shake-move - to get around Jawaan Taylor for the sack. What’s even more impressive is that he is able to maneuver around Taylor with relative ease despite the fact that Taylor is grabbing his head.

I think Taylor should’ve been flagged, but that’s another topic for another day. Barrett’s relentlessness deserves to be the topic of conversation, here:

Bowles’ six-man blitz puts his guys in a 1-v-1 opportunity, which must be taken advantage of. If they can’t get home and Nick Foles is given ample time to throw, then the Bucs are at risk of taking a hit on a big play.

This play is another three-step drop that is designed to get the ball out quickly. The Bucs look to be playing Cover 1 out of their nickel package this time, due to Jordan Whitehead’s presence as a single-high safety in the middle of the field and the fact that the defenders are using trail technique with their assignments. Bowles decides to send Andrew Adams, the free defender, on a blitz off the right edge of the defense, which creates the 1-v-1 matchups that I’ve been talking about.

It’s the perfect play call that’s designed to combat quick throws.

Once again, it’s sticky coverage for the Bucs. As you can see, Foles has nowhere to go with the ball on the wide side of the field, even with a three-receiver set:

This is a successful marriage of design and execution. This time, Barrett receives additional help from both the extra blitzers and the coverage, which allows him to get to Foles.

Take a look right here. If Barrett or any of the other defenders don’t get home, then Foles had tight end Nick O’Leary WIDE open for a big play over the middle:

And of course, the icing on top is the fact that Devin White turned the strip-sack into six points. When that happens, the wins usually comes in bunches.

Vita Vea, The Generous One

We’ve already looked at how better play from the secondary and good execution has helped Barrett over the last two weeks, so now it’s time to take a quick look at how others can impact his numbers.

If you follow the Bucs, you know all about Vita Vea and what he can do at the line of scrimmage. If you don’t know about Vea, well, you’re about to get to know him really well.

What better player to use in this instance than Vea?

This play is another example of what Arians was talking about during Monday’s availability.

Vea wrecks Andrew Norwell on this play, but he can’t quite finish the job on Gardner Minshew II. That’s OK though, because Big Daddy Barrett is there to clean it up and kill the drive:

This is just a simple four-man rush with zone coverage behind them. What’s even better is that the Jags had six guys in to block, but they still couldn’t protect Minshew. Carl Nassib even helps out a bit by forcing Minshew to step up into Vea.

In fact, Barrett’s presence holds both Cam Robinson and Leonard Fournette’s attention to the point where they don’t even notice Norwell getting his lunch swiped by Vea or the fact that Minshew is about to eat it once Vea takes about two more steps:

Vea’s abilities combined with Barrett’s impact is what allowed this sack to come through, but without Vea, it’s possible that the Bucs don’t get to Minshew on this play.

This is what Arians was referring to when he mentioned how the play of Vea, Nassib, Suh, and others have helped Barrett get back to being the guy we saw during Weeks 1-4.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Barrett only gets the job done because of his teammates. That’s not what I’m saying, at all.

I’m just pointing out that the improved play around him has allowed him to get back to the production we saw earlier in the season. The NFL is a game of inches and seconds. If a defensive back can hang with his assignment for just another step or if a rusher can take up an extra block, then it’s bound to help others make plays. That’s how the game works.

In Barrett’s case, that’s what has happened over these last two weeks. Others are stepping up, which is allowing the bona-fide playmakers like Barrett to do their thing.

It’s exciting to watch and hopefully it will continue for the rest of 2019.