TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense was dealt another tough blow last week when Vita Vea -- who had arguably one of the best training camps of any player -- suffered a left knee injury, meaning he could miss four to eight weeks, including some regular-season games.
It’s the second major blow to coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense, after losing Jason Pierre-Paul for an indefinite period of time due to a fractured neck. (For now, it appears the Bucs escaped a close call with linebacker Lavonte David, who suffered a torn meniscus and required arthroscopic surgery. The coaching staff believes he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season.)
"A guy like Vita will be hard to replace," defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said. "I don’t think you can replace Vita with one person, so everybody will lend a hand to get the job done."
How have they been making it work in recent practices?
Before getting into that, it’s important to note a key difference with Bowles' defense: It relies on deception. Under previous regimes, the defense relied on players winning one-on-one matchups and getting pressure with four up front. With Bowles, rather than saying, "Let me see if I can overpower you," it's "I’m going to try and outsmart you." This may not be as evident during preseason games, where they’re eager not to tip their hand.
“I would say, [we’re showing] less than 10 percent [of our playbook],” Rodgers said. “We’re really just lining up, playing, seeing what these guys can do that [are] fighting for the jobs on the team.”
Bowles’ scheme also really doesn’t have a true base identity, except that he likes to bring pressure from everywhere, and nothing’s off the table in terms of which personnel rush the quarterback or on what down they do it. For a team dealing with a rash of injuries, this kind of creativity can be invaluable.
“We do have a lot of versatility on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s good, that’s what you need,” said Beau Allen, the next man up on the depth chart behind Vea. “You need guys that [can do it all]. The great thing about training camp, too, is that you figure out what your strengths are as a defense, you figure out what guys are good at -- training camp is important to find your identity. I’m excited about all the different things we can do. We can attack teams in a bunch of different ways.”
First, they still have Ndamukong Suh, who already has experience lining up not only as a 3-technique but as a defensive end in this scheme because of his time with the Los Angeles Rams. He primarily lined up as an end there because Aaron Donald occupied the 3-technique spot.
Not having Vea next to him may mean that Suh occupies more attention inside and gets double-teamed, but he’s been enough of a disrupter to where he can still wreak havoc, and the inside linebackers and defensive backs can still be active in those A-gaps -- the areas between the center and the guards. That’s something Bowles likes to deploy a lot of.
“It makes it easy when you’ve got two guys [Suh and Vea] like that [getting penetration],” inside linebacker Deone Bucannon said. “They demand double-teams, so it helps us so we don’t just have a free release of 300-plus pounds coming up to us, so that makes it a lot easier for us. Believe me, I thank them every chance I get.”
Not having Vea’s presence inside has meant that sometimes those blitzers don’t have as clear of a path to the quarterback. But Bowles mixes it up enough in other areas to create confusion, whether it’s overloading a particular side of a formation and dropping the other, or using his personnel in unconventional ways.
“Coach [Bowles] stresses that a lot -- disguising, keep the quarterback on his toes. That’s what it’s all about … you want them to be caught off-guard,” Bucannon said.
On one particular play, outside linebacker Carl Nassib looked like he was coming off the edge, but instead it was Will Gholston taking on right tackle Demar Dotson while Nassib dropped into coverage, and the two inside linebackers rushed the A-gaps while Rakeem Nunez-Roches took on the center and Suh lined up as another end. One those inside linebackers -- Devin White -- would have notched a sack on the play.
“Coach Bowles is good at understanding your strengths and putting you in the best position to make plays,” inside linebacker Kevin Minter said. “He was like that in Arizona, man. It’s the same way here. … Some of the stuff he does with schemes and stuff, it’s unreal.”