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Return of Vita Vea could catapult Buccaneers to a historic home finale

How Vea’s return could be just the advantage Tom Brady needs to top Aaron Rodgers in their first postseason contest

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one game away from becoming the first team to host and play in a Super Bowl. And it’s Super Bowl 55, which automatically thrusts memories of Derrick Brooks into the forefront. It kind of seems like it was meant to be, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t alway like this though. From the moment it became evident Tom Brady was heading south to join Bruce Arians and his Buccaneers squad there were questions. Was Brady too old this time around? Could he survive without Bill Belichick and/or Josh McDaniels.

Then, could they ever beat the Saints? Was Tampa Bay’s prime time curse too much for even Brady to overcome? Could they ever beat a playoff contender? Would injuries take down their championship chances before they ever even got to the postseason?

It hasn’t been an easy season for many reasons, COVID-19 even crept up in more recent days, threatening to derail the historic course this team has been put on.

Now though, COVID-19 seems to have taken an exit from the organization. Brady has proven at a franchise record level he’s still got what it takes. And the Buccaneers beat the Saints.

All that’s standing in their way now is injuries. Enter Vita Vea. In a big way, the return of Vea not only bolsters the defensive front, it reinvigorates the championship vision which has been under construction for years.

In Vea’s case, the year was 2018. Jason Licht held the seventh overall pick in that year’s NFL Draft and almost everyone was eyeing Florida State safety Derwin James for an in-state transfer to professional football.

But when the pick came up, Licht flipped the pick - and their seventh-round pick the same year - to the Buffalo Bills. The Bills got quarterback Josh Allen, who is getting set to lead them to their first AFC Championship Game since 1993.

Tampa Bay got Vita Vea (12th overall), and using another trade involving a pick from their first, Licht landed Carlton Davis III and Jordan Whitehead. Three starters on defense for the price of a franchise quarterback. All things considered, I think both sides are happy with the outcome. Oh, and James ended up with the Chargers at pick seventeen.

Following the draft in 2018, Chad Reuter had this to say about Tampa Bay’s class,

“Vea could be a difference-maker against the run and as a penetrator in the interior. There was better value at a position of need in Florida State safety Derwin James. They could have picked a nose tackle later in the draft. But they did pick up two second-round picks by trading back only five spots in the first round. That haul resulted in a starting running back in Jones, who can do a bit of everything and was a worthy selection. Pairing Stewart with outside corner Carlton Davis gives the Bucs depth. Cappa is a starting guard for the Buccaneers sooner than later. He’ll get after it in a big way. Whitehead (fourth round) could turn out to be a starter at free safety if he can be physical with bigger receivers and overcome off-field concerns. Watson earned fans during the post-season process and has the chance to be a fit as a fourth receiver. Cichy missed his final season at Wisconsin due to injury, but could rebound in 2018 to be a solid contributor in the middle.”

NFL: NFL Draft Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Three years later, the 2018 Buccaneers draft class features four key contributors for them in this weekend’s game. It would be five if it weren’t for the ankle injury suffered by Alex Cappa.

For Vea, he was on a solid pace this season before exiting against the Chicago Bears with an ankle injury which cost him the next thirteen games. He was on pace t have six sacks on the year, and was a huge force in the middle for the NFL’s best run defense.

Through the first five weeks the Buccaneers defense was on pace to notch 54 sacks in the regular season. Without Vea, they finished with 48. Not a bad number, granted, but six is a big difference.

Of course, the drop isn’t completely on the loss of Vea, but the impact of losing their big man up front has been visible and felt throughout the regular season. Even as the remaining roster fought and own it’s way to eleven wins and two more in the postseason, the discussions of what the defense could be if Vea were there, were constant.

With his potential return, there’s a new reason for the team to get elevated for this weekend’s contest against the Packers.

“Just to see him (Vita Vea) out there running around has been great for me personally [with] the relationship that we have,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. “Hopefully we can keep winning and he can get back. That would be great if he can.”

And this is the emotional impact a player like Vea can have. Just to see him out on the field in January, fighting to get back on the field with his teammates. Those are the types of things that help keep batteries charged, and sharpen focus to razor-like levels.

It means something. If he steps on the field for 12-15 snaps, it means even more.

The return of Vea makes Green Bay prepare for more defensive fronts than they’ve seen in recent games from the Buccaneers. The ripple effect of what Todd Bowles can do depending on how the trenches are stacked forces the Packers to prepare for even more.

Bottom line up front, there are a lot of layers to what Vea’s return to the active roster means. Those layers only get thicker and more diverse if he plays significant snaps. If he plays well, it’s a whole new ball game.

Between the motivation his fight-back example is setting for his teammates and the strategic complications his activation presents to his opponent’s scheme-makers, Vita Vea is this weekend’s X-Factor for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Green Bay Packers.