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NFL: DEC 13 Vikings at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bucs X-Factor: Shaq Barrett looks to step up against Patriots

Tampa’s most handsomely paid defender needs to shake off a slow season start.

When Shaquil Barrett emerged with the Buccaneers in 2019, compiling a league-high 19.5 sacks, fans looked to him and finally saw hope for a perennially anemic pass rush.

He then wreaked havoc in the Super Bowl against Kansas City and Pat Mahomes, and he could’ve easily had a legitimate claim to the MVP trophy if he didn’t play with the geriatric giant Tom Brady.

There’s no doubt he earned his payday, garnering a 4-year deal worth $68 million and cementing his status as a premier pass rusher. An average of $17 million per year makes him the team’s second highest-paid player behind Brady, and that carries a certain degree of expectation.

Thus far, Barrett has struggled to maintain that spark.

Perhaps you can chalk it up to teams adopting the quick passing game to combat Tampa’s strengths, or the banged-up secondary massively underwhelming thus far, but the truth is that Barrett is not making the impact that the team currently needs from him.

He’s currently outside the top 10 in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric, and Next Gen Stats logged him below league average in their pass rush metric — which measures average pressure distance from the QB at the time of the passer throw or sack — two out of the first three games. Per Pro Football Focus, he has an overall grade of just 64.9.

In more conventional statistics, he has 1 sack and 3 quarterback hits, along with an interception off a deflection. It’s plenty early in the season, but that’s not going to get it done over the next three or so months.

Barrett himself critiqued his performance after practice Thursday.

“I haven’t been winning enough and I’ve been working on it in practice, making sure I get back to where I need to be at,” he said.

“Just have to win. Just keep winning and sometimes you win on the three-step drop and you won’t get there, but you just have to keep winning because they will hold the ball. When they do hold the ball, we have to be there. It won’t be a one sack game for us ever again. We’ll have more than one sack every game from here on out.”

That’s what you like to hear from your premier quarterback hunter, and you expect him to make good on his refocused approach against another premier offensive line this week. The Patriots have the sixth-best pass block win rate in the league, according to ESPN, logging an impressive mark of 64%.

That said, their competition hasn’t been the strongest thus far between the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and New Orleans Saints. Even without Jason Pierre-Paul, this pass rush should constitute the Patriots’ biggest challenge.

Key emphasis on “should.”

Matt Stafford and the Rams passing offense leisurely dissected the defense while Barrett, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and others largely found themselves stonewalled. If the Bucs don’t want to give rookie Mac Jones a gift-wrapped opportunity for his best career game yet, that has to change.

The emphasis has understandably been Brady and Gronk returning to face off against their former emperor, Bill Belichick. In all likelihood, the offense should move the ball and put up points against a tenacious but flawed Patriots defense.

However, a good pass rush will be integral to keeping this as a comfortable win and not an uncomfortable upset threat. As we’ve seen, this aspect usually matters every week, but it feels extra important against a great unit in a primetime game and coming off a rough loss.

Whether players openly admit it or not, these are the types of contest that they live for and expect to play well in. Barrett said how much he wants to help his teammates get a win in their return, so you can only hope that translates under the lights of Gilette Stadium.

“I want to make sure we get the job done,” Barrett said. “I want to win every game, but especially this one because of Tom being there for a while and now he’s down here. It’s just something about when you’re leaving home and then you want to come back there and let them know they made a mistake. Then with him beating every team in the NFL, you want to be a part of that, too.

“Whatever we can do to help him get that win, we’re going to do it.”

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