Rick Stroud: The Bucs keep the band together on defense

Tribune Content Agency

TAMPA, Fla. — Ndamukong Suh is not a very good pass rusher anymore. He had about as many sacks as he did touchdowns last season. He’s not even the best defensive tackle on his own team. Vita Vea is.

But together, Suh (307 pounds) and Vea (346 pounds) are two immovable mountains of men who clog up the middle of the defense so linebackers Shaquil Barrett (19.5 sacks) and Jason Pierre-Paul (8.5 sacks) can wreak havoc on quarterbacks with no avenue of escape.

What Suh represents is a vital piece — the last one among the Bucs’ front seven who were free agents — that the team needed to re-sign in order to keep everyone together for 2020.

“We wanted the entire defense, if we could, to stay together; they played so well together,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said on a conference call Wednesday. “That was a piece of the puzzle, they knew each other. Suh was a big, big part of it, obviously. Not as much in the sack game as much as his interior pressure and the great job he did last year against the run. I mean, we were No. 1 against the run in the league last year and a lot of it was because of him and Vita.”

Suh, 33, agreed to a one-year, $8 million contract to return to the Bucs in 2020. He earned $9.25 million last season while playing in 77% of the defensive snaps.

He had drawn interest from at least the 49ers, who traded DeForest Buckner to the Colts for a first-round pick. But when that fizzled, Suh agreed to remain in Tampa Bay.

Nobody ran on the Bucs last season. They allowed only 73.8 yards rushing per game. In the final three games, including one against the playoff-bound Houston Texans, they allowed only 67.3.

When you consider the roll call of running backs the Bucs faced last season — the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, the Rams’ Todd Gurley, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley and the Titans’ Travis Henry — it’s even more impressive. None of those elite ballcarriers rushed for 100 yards against the Bucs.

Only three of Tampa Bay’s 16 opponents in 2019 rushed for more than 100 yards as a team. The Seahawks’ Chris Carson, who rushed for 105 yards in a Week 9 loss at Seattle, is the only running back to reach the century rushing mark against the Bucs last season.

“The No. 1 goal for me coming out of last season is to continue to build on defense and the only way to build is to keep everybody in place and grow,” Arians said. “It’s huge. … We did some really nice things last year and we got better and better, especially the last six weeks of the season. I really liked the way we played against Houston, which was a playoff-caliber team and I thought our defense played more than well enough to win that game.”

Of course, turnovers were the problem and the Bucs believe they have addressed that, replacing Jameis Winston with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

What the Bucs wanted from Suh he delivered. Vea, who battled through injuries as a rookie, still has only begun to tap his potential. He’s so strong with balance and speed that it’s impossible to block him with one player.

But he didn’t have enough of a mean streak, and the Bucs were hoping Suh would help draw that out of him without crossing the line.

Like Suh, Vea had two-and-a-half sacks while hauling in a touchdown pass from Winston. Suh had nearly as many touchdowns (two) as he had sacks (2.5). He played in 16 games with 41 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks. He returned fumbles for touchdowns at Los Angeles and Atlanta.

The Bucs used the franchise tag on Barrett, who led the NFL in sacks with 19.5. Then they signed Pierre-Paul to a two-year, $25 million deal. Pierre-Paul had 8.5 sacks in 10 games after missing the first part of the season with a cervical fracture in his neck.

Arians is known for his expertise on the other side of the ball. But no matter who is under center, it wouldn’t mean much if they couldn’t stop anyone on defense.

“Right now, we’ve got just about the whole defense back and we changed quarterbacks,” Arians said. “I think we gained the best quarterback to ever play the game. I think it sends a good message.”

The front seven has been preserved. Suh, Vea and William Gholston are back as the starting three defensive linemen. Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David and Devin White are locked up at linebacker. The Bucs lost linebacker Carl Nassib to the Raiders and defensive tackle Beau Allen to the Patriots in free agency, but that was about it on defense.

After signing Suh, the Bucs have about $14 million in salary cap space. Some of that has to go to signing a draft class and injured reserve. Arians said the only things left to add in free agency would possibly be a pass-catching running back and depth in the secondary, especially safety.

“I don’t think talent will be an issue whether we make the Super Bowl or not,” Arians said. “There’s some luck that comes with that, staying healthy and some other things. But talent won’t be an issue to keep us out of the playoffs, no.”


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