FAB 3. Versatile Vea Helps Tampa Bay In Many Ways
If you think the Buccaneers drafted a big, run-stuffing defensive tackle with their first-round pick you’re sadly mistaken. Vita Vea is so much more than a 347-pound space-eater.
Vea wasn’t even called a defensive tackle at the University of Washington. He was called a defensive lineman because he played the three-technique and the five-technique positions in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme in the Huskies’ multiple defensive alignments.
And yes, Vea also played the one-technique nose tackle spot when Washington was in a 4-3, and the traditional zero-tech nose tackle position when the Huskies were in a 3-4.
“It’s great because he understands both schemes,” said Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “It’s the way we train our guys. They can go into any system in the NFL. I’m not completely in tune with what Tampa is doing now, but if it’s a four-man front he’s going to be able to play the three (technique), play the nose, play the shade on a center or a guard, and play that A-gap. Teams are going to have to donate two guys to make sure that guy is blocked. If they single him up, he is going to make the play, and if they stay on him and double him other linemen are going to make plays.”
The fact that Vea played a multiple defense like Washington’s where he had a one-gap responsibility as well as two-gap, it’s that kind versatility really attracted the Bucs to him from the start. Initially Vea will cross-train at both nose and three-technique as a rookie, but he’ll eventually replace Gerald McCoy years down the road.
“One of the things we liked about him was that he could play anywhere along the line of scrimmage, including the five-technique with his athleticism and length,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “Yes, we do feel like he could be a three-technique, but every player is different.
“He has a little different style than the initial get-off that Gerald has. It’s going to be a combination of quickness, agility and power. When Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville he had John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Neither of them were ideal three-technique the way fans think off Warren Sapp and McCoy. Mike had a lot of success there with two giant guys. If you have two good defensive tackles you can make this defense work.”
Vea is certainly a giant guy, and that has created a buzz at One Buccaneer Place, especially among the linebackers, who will benefit from him drawing double-team blocks.
“I still haven’t seen him but the buzz around the locker room is that he’s s a big guy,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. “So, that’s my anticipation right now just to see how big he is at first and then we’ll see how he does on the field.
“With our division, you have a lot of teams that run that zone running scheme. So when you have a guy who can get up field and disrupt or a big guy who takes up two guys, it’s really smooth for linebackers to flow and get downfield to make more TFLs (tackles for loss). So we’re looking forward to that.”
Lake said to not let Vea’s modest sack numbers – 9.5 career sacks – bother you. The All PAC-12 defender wreaks so much havoc and disruption by collapsing the pocket that he creates sack opportunities for others.
“He is going to do so much to relieve pressure for the whole defense,” Lake said. “Whether it’s the linebackers in the run game or the back-end in the pass game. That’s what he’s going to be doing. I think with interior linemen like Vea, he doesn’t have the pressure of having to be big sack guy his first year just because he is a first-round pick. His production is really going to be helping those linebackers making tackles untouched. All of a sudden the running lanes and both A-gaps are stuffed.
“For Bucs fans, they aren’t going to see him breaking through and getting a whole bunch of stats. The casual fan looking at his stats might be like, ‘Where is this guy? Where are all his stats?’ Yet they see all the linebackers having 10-plus tackle games, and that’s going to be a pat on the back to him.”
Lake said that Vea’s two best games last year came in a 44-23 win over UCLA and in a 41-14 win over No. 13 Washington State in the Apple Cup rivalry game. Vea dominated in both games, yet only had three tackles, two pass breakups, one tackle for loss and one sack against the Bruins, and two tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup and half a sack against the Cougars.
“The Washington State game stands out in my mind because they threw the ball so much and we had a three-man rush and he was so disruptive. They are trying to block our three with five offensive linemen and he just causing havoc.”
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk was sacked five times, fumbled once and threw three interceptions in that game against the Huskies. I caught up with him at the Senior Bowl and asked him about Vea’s performance.
“That guy – you watch him on film and you understand how good he is, and then you play him and you realize he’s even better than you thought,” Falk said. “Their game plan was really, rush three and drop eight into coverage. Vita made it feel like we were getting rushed by six guys. He’s an incredible player and I have nothing but respect for him. I think he’s going to be great in the NFL. He’s special. You don’t find guys like him that can move like he does. It’s only once in a long while that you see guys like him.”
Although he had only modest stats against the Bruins, Vea made his mark against UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, knocking him out of the game.
“In the UCLA game he knocked down Rosen and caused a concussion in that game,” Lake said. “Kudos to the Bucs G.M. down there, and the whole scouting department for getting a creature like Vita. They don’t grow on trees. This is a once in 10-15-year player. He’s going to change the game for those guys down there. It’s awesome that they went with the size and the power of a Vita Vea instead of another type of player they could have drafted.”
Vea will surely have an impact during his rookie season, even if it’s as a rotational player at first, rotating with McCoy and nose tackle Beau Allen. But Licht’s selection of Vea wasn’t just to help the present day Buccaneers. It was also also a pick for the future.
“Drafting Vita wasn’t us saying, ‘Now we’re going to find the successor for Gerald,’” Licht said. “I don’t see Gerald retiring or out of the organization in the foreseeable future, but it is true that it does take these guys some time playing at NFL speed with leverage, hands, understanding the scheme and what we are going to ask our defensive linemen to do.”
The selection of Vea also gives the franchise some extreme flexibility scheme-wise in the future. A few years down the road when players in or around their 30s like McCoy, Vinny Curry or Jason Pierre-Paul are gone, and if defensive coordinator Mike Smith moves on, perhaps to become a head coach again, Vea’s versatility allows the Bucs to possibly convert to a 3-4 defense down the road.
“Vea can play multiple positions and that nose spot would be one he could handle, but if he were in a traditional 3-4 scheme, where is his best fit?” Licht said. “It is the nose or the five [technique]? It might even be the five. He’s just so rare in that sense because he has the ability to play everywhere. He’s so versatile.”