NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett becomes Bucs' unexpected star on defense

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense was dealt a major blow this spring when Jason Pierre-Paul -- who last season became the first Bucs player in 13 years to record double-digit sacks -- suffered a fractured neck in an auto accident. The Bucs didn’t have a marquee pass-rusher on their roster. Who would step up in his absence?

Now that one Bucs player has notched 8.0 sacks in three games -- tying an NFL best for most sacks through the first three games of a season that's stood since 1984 -- the answer is abundantly clear: Shaquil Barrett.

Barrett recorded 4.0 sacks with two forced fumbles against the New York Giants on Sunday, one of the team's only bright spots in a 32-31 loss. He now has seven sacks in the past two weeks. Even more impressive? Only one of those sacks on Sunday involved the Bucs sending extra pass-rushers.

“Years and years of hard work is just coming to fruition,” said Barrett, 26, who was awarded NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors last week after collecting 3.0 sacks against the Panthers. Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State who had to play in the Bucs' fourth preseason game to help earn his job.

“The big guys inside [Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh] get doubled a lot, so that creates a lot of space for him, and Shaq has just taken advantage of it,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He is playing hard, he has an array of moves that he tries to do and they worked out for him.”

In five seasons with the Denver Broncos – one spent on the practice squad -- Barrett never had more than 5.5 sacks in a season (he had nine career starts) backing up DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. But he studied closely, particularly Miller, who said at his pass-rush summit last year that Barrett would be a 10-sack player.

“His 10-sack season is coming," Miller said. "He has all the tools. He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s great with his hands. He’s done great things for us. He’s a starter. On any other team, he’d be their premier pass-rusher.”

Miller's premonition was right, although Barrett's power and violent hands are tormenting left tackles and quarterbacks 1,850 miles away from Denver in Tampa.

“I’ve got a lot of his movements -- everything that he does, I pretty much circled my game around because he’s one of the best; I learned under him for five years,” Barrett said of Miller. “It’s only right that I picked up pretty much everything from his game … but I still got some of my own stuff.”

Barrett only had two offers in free agency this spring -- from the Bucs and the Cincinnati Bengals -- settling on a one-year prove-it deal with Tampa Bay worth $4 million and a chance to become a starter. He spent much of the spring splitting first-team reps with Noah Spence on the right side.

"I just wanted a chance to prove my worth," Barrett said. "Any interest is better than no interest. I’m just happy that somebody wanted me. That’s all I wanted -- somebody to want me, to feel wanted and to come down here and try to earn a spot.”

He’s already reached one bonus for the year -- $250,000 for 8.0 sacks -- with a strong chance of earning another $250,000 when he reaches 10. A long-term deal should come next. His price tag will skyrocket if the Bucs wait or allow him to hit the open market.

“This is more than I imagined, honestly,” Barrett said. “I feel like the sky is the limit. I’m just ready to keep working on the practice field, the film room, keep improving and just trying to help the team win.”

Truth be told, though, Sunday's loss -- particularly a late touchdown where rookie quarterback Daniel Jones ran right up the gut, allowing the Giants to rally from an 18-point deficit -- overshadowed any personal victories for Barrett.

"It just hurts so much, so it’s going to motivate us to come back and finish the games [and] finish the second halves," Barrett said. "It won’t happen again.”