Vita Vea stands out in an era where NFL players coordinate their accessories down to the slightest of details. Unlike his teammates, who paint their arms with colourful sleeves or wear tinted visors on their helmets, the defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keeps things simple.
In confrontations against offensive linemen, Vita Vea fights bare-handed and without gloves. He uses his 6-foot-4, 347-pound body against guards and centres, slamming them behind the line of scrimmage into quarterbacks’ laps like rag dolls.
“It just became a habit,” Vita Vea said of the practise, which began with Washington college teammates. “I would feel confined if I wore gloves.”

Choose any Buccaneers game this season — the opener against the Dallas Cowboys, a thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons, or a narrow victory over the New England Patriots — and you’ll see Vea forcibly relocating another grown guy from one place to another.

That output does not generate distinguishing statistics: Vea has only seven tackles in four games and has failed to register a sack. However, the devastation a great interior lineman creates by attracting double teams and plugging holes often helps their colleagues to clear passageways for ball carriers and quarterbacks, allowing them to rack up the stats that earn paydays and hardware.

What Vita Vea excels at, and the outsized impact it has on a Buccaneers team that ranks first in the league in rushing defence, may go unnoticed by those who watch his games casually. His worth is evident to the coaches and players who study him.

“He is one of the top players in the league,” Rams head coach Sean McVay stated. “He’s such a large individual with such amazing ability, such fantastic movement,” he continued. He’s a stumbling block. He’s a major issue.”

The interior of the defensive line has traditionally been an important but unappreciated and unglamorous position. Prior to 2017, Warren Sapp was the last defensive lineman to earn Defensive Player of the Year. Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams won it in 2017, 2019, and 2020, but he is seen as an outlier to a standard interior lineman because to his extraordinary power and speed while being undersized in comparison to contemporaries.

“Edge rushers earn more sacks and create more plays, but we all have to work together in the end,” Vita Vea said.

Vea, who was drafted 12th overall in 2018, started 24 games in his first two seasons, totaling 63 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Vea broke his ankle last October when his teammate, linebacker Devin White, collided with it against the Chicago Bears. Vea was taken off the field by team officials, and he missed the rest of the regular season. However, he returned in the middle of the Buccaneers’ postseason run and assisted in hounding Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.

Vita Vea now fully recovered, shook up the Cowboys’ offensive line in the league’s nationally televised season opener. After Dallas’ 315-pound centre Tyler Biadasz snapped the ball, Vea moved him nearly 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage to Dak Prescott’s knees, forcing him to throw the ball away to avoid a sack.

In the much-anticipated Brady vs. Belichick prime time clash, Vea garnered some attention when he shish kebabed two Patriots linemen, Ted Karras (305 pounds) and Isaiah Wynn (310 pounds), opening up a wide route for rookie linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to easily sack Mac Jones.

Vita Vea personally stopped two potential touchdown passes to DeSean Jackson against the Rams. With the Rams facing a third-and-10 from their 38-yard line in the first quarter, Vea shoved left guard David Edwards (308 pounds) into the pocket, forcing Matthew Stafford to rush his pass. It missed Jackson, who was one stride ahead of a safety downfield. In the second quarter, he fought through a double team from Edwards and centre Brian Allen (303 pounds), causing Stafford to miss an open Jackson for the second time.

Vea claims that in those instances, he is unaware of the amount of force he is pushing on another very huge human being.

“I’ve got to make the play,” Vea explained. “That’s all I can think of.” I have no choice except to be destructive. I have to contribute in some way.”

With Vea filling gaps and rearranging offensive lines, opponents are now focusing their pass assaults on the Bucs’ young secondary, which is missing a number of key starters. The Bucs have allowed 1,310 yards per game, the most in the NFL, prompting Tampa Bay to sign veteran cornerback Richard Sherman.

To compensate for a position group in upheaval, Tampa Bay’s pass rush will have to work harder to reach opposing quarterbacks. This includes Vea, who Coach Bruce Arians believes has the potential to be even better than he has been.

“I’d just like to see him finish more because he’s come close eight or nine times,” Arians remarked. “He’s one of those guys that can have multiple sack games.” He’s getting there, and he’s improving.”

If Arians is correct, Vea could be on his way out of the shadows.