Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vita Vea, back from ankle fracture, had faith in return

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea never gave up hope of returning this season despite fracturing his ankle in Week 5.

The 2018 12th overall draft pick was activated from injured reserve last week, and after two days of practice and a walk-through last week, he played 32 snaps in the NFC Championship Game, in which the defense sacked Aaron Rodgers five times.

Up next: Facing Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV in Tampa at Raymond James Stadium.

"Obviously, I was down and out that night, but I think that night I told myself, 'If you just push through this, push through rehab, you might have a chance,'" Vea said, speaking Friday for the first time since suffering the injury Oct. 8.

"They told me I might have a small chance of making it, so I took those chances of what they said, and I really took it to heart. That's what I stuck with."

The injury itself hurt for about 20 seconds, he said, which came as the result of getting rolled up on by a teammate. He was still in relatively good spirits, except for having to adjust to crutches.

"I knew at the end of the day, I'd be back," Vea said. "I kept telling myself, 'I'll be back.'"

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh set Vea up with his personal chef so he could follow a healthy diet and keep his weight down to 347 pounds. He worked out with the strength staff six days a week to keep his strength and his stamina. He still attended all defensive line meetings and defensive meetings to stay locked into the game and thinking positive.

The Bucs' front office and coaching staff hadn't planned to activate him off of injured reserve, but coach Bruce Arians started watching his workouts. He began running about four weeks ago. Arians told him, "We'll keep winning and you keep working, and it will work out."

"That's always uplifting when you hear someone say that to you, and obviously when the head coach says that to you," Vea said. "I think that was like our little thing to each other, every time we'd see each other, we'd look at each other like, 'Keep winning, I'll show up.' And I ended up being able to play last weekend, which was a huge blessing for me."

The Bucs didn't have Vea in their 27-24 loss to Chiefs in Week 12, where they struggled to get pressure on Mahomes and gave up chunk plays in the secondary. Vea's size typically commands double-teams, which frees up Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul -- who got 3.0 and 2.0 sacks of Rodgers last week, respectively -- to get to the quarterback.

"Vita's a big impact," Barrett said. "We most definitely missed Vita. On the first sack, the quarterback was trying to go to where Vita was at but he couldn't because Vita was right there and he flushed him right to me, and it worked out perfectly. Just from that, not even a run defense -- run defense, he's a real important piece in there -- wherever Vita's at, he's gonna take the gap next to him on both sides, and maybe one more gap, so we most definitely missed him in there."

The Chiefs have had to do some significant offensive line shuffling this season, with their latest setback being the loss of left tackle Eric Fisher due to a torn Achilles tendon in the AFC Championship Game. They will also likely be without right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who continues to recover from a back injury, not to mention the loss of left guard Kelechi Osemele due to torn tendons in both knees, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Lucas Niang having opted out this year due to concerns over COVID-19.