Anthony Nelson coming up ‘huge’ as unheralded member of Bucs defense

The Bucs had rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter Sunday to take the lead in Carolina, but the Panthers still had the ball, down three points, trying to claw their way to tie or regain the lead.

Then outside linebacker Anthony Nelson came up with a huge play for the second straight week, sacking quarterback Sam Darnold and forcing a fumble that the Bucs recovered at the Carolina 6, setting up an easy touchdown and the final margin of victory at a 30 .-24 win that clinched an NFC South title for Tampa Bay.

“He’s been big on turnovers and sacks,” coach Todd Bowles said Monday. “He’s playing solid overall defense. Nelson has been one of the smartest guys we’ve had [since] we have it; he was right behind two big players. He’s coming along right now and we like his progress.”

Nelson, 25, is finishing the season strong for the second year in a row, and his timing is perfect as he will be an unrestricted free agent in March. The Bucs needed someone to step up when Pro Bowl running back Shaq Barrett was lost with a season-ending Achilles injury, and Nelson has answered that call. In the past four games, he has three forced fumbles, and his 2.5 sacks in three games have him with a team-high 5.5 on the season.

Not only did the Bucs lose Barrett, but they also placed backup Genard Avery on injured reserve, and Carl Nassib has missed the past three games with a pectoral injury. So the Bucs have had exactly two outside linebackers — Nelson and 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka — over the last three games, meaning Nelson has played every snap for three games at a position where that rarely happens

“Me and Joe have been working around here, especially these last couple of games, every snap,” Nelson said. “We just battle it out. It’s been fun being in the trenches with him. We get stuck in the grind … like, ‘Are you tired? Yes. Are you tired? Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I guess we have to do a play.’ That’s all we got.”

Nelson, a fourth-round pick out of Iowa in 2019, had started just four games in his first three seasons in Tampa, playing behind Barrett and fellow Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul. When Pierre-Paul didn’t re-sign after last season, Tryon-Shoyinka stepped in as the starter, but Nelson got his chance with Barrett’s injury, starting the final seven games.

Long and lanky at 6-foot-7 and 271 pounds, Nelson has shown a penchant for playing his best football late in the season. His first career sack came in Week 16 of 2020 the day after Christmas, and last season he had a sack in each of the final three games to give him five on the year. The same this season, with 2.5 sacks in the last three games. For his career, he has more sacks (6.5) in 16 games in December and January than (five) in 42 games played earlier in the season.

“It’s the mentality we always have,” Nelson said Sunday. “When I’m out there, I’m expected to make a play. Even when I was a bench replacement, when you’re out there, you’re expected to make a play. That’s just the standard in the room. . .. It’s never easy. It wasn’t today. But we’re division champions and that’s why we came today.”

Bucs clinch NFC South with win over Panthers

Bucs clinch NFC South with win over Panthers

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers clinched the NFC South with a 30-24 win over the Panthers in Week 17. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe react as Brady makes the playoffs for the 14th straight season.

Nelson had done the same a week earlier on Christmas Day, blindside Cardinals quarterback Trace McSorley for a key turnover early in Tampa Bay’s comeback win at Arizona. He’s been hard to come by for the Bucs defense, and Nelson’s three forced sacks are the most on the team.

Being productive as a Bucs safety can set up a lucrative contract in free agency. Just as Nelson has racked up 10.5 sacks over the last two seasons, Nassib was very similar in 2018-19. After totaling 12.5 sacks over those two seasons, Nassib earned a two-year, $17.2 million deal with the Raiders before returning to Tampa in 2022.

Nelson is one of more than 20 unrestricted free agents the Bucs will have, with limited salary cap flexibility as they try to get the best of them back. For now, his goal is to keep the Bucs’ season going as long as possible, from Sunday’s regular-season finale in Atlanta to hosting a wild-card game the following weekend, hoping to keep winning and move on.

“To hit that ticket, that’s not easy to do,” said Nelson, who had a sack in the Bucs’ playoff opener against Washington two years ago. “We have a lot to correct, and we have a lot ahead of us. We have a lot of goals that we haven’t reached yet, but this gives us the opportunity. So we’re happy. We’re going to enjoy it. This week, we’re going to go back to work to get it right , because we’ll need him for the playoffs.”

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Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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