TAMPA, Fla. — One was stiff-armed by Christian McCaffrey as a rookie last season and now has McCaffrey calling him “the best in the league.” The other, his teacher, has produced such gaudy stats over the past nine seasons that his résumé could easily be mistaken for a Hall of Famer’s if not for all the glaring Pro Bowl omissions.
Together, Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David comprise arguably the NFL’s best linebacking duo of 2020 and are a key reason for the success of Todd Bowles’ defense (ranked No. 3 allowing 291.3 yards per game). They are his Swiss Army knives who can do it all on any given play.
“They’re both extremely talented. They play sideline to sideline, they’re great in pass coverage and their speed just shows up all the time,” coach Bruce Arians said. “When we drafted Devin, we wanted a guy that was an extremely fast [and] big leader in the middle of our defense. He is really blossoming right now.”
As for David, the Bucs’ longest-tenured player who’s finally getting some recognition because of their 5-2 record and playing alongside Tom Brady, Bowles said, “He makes us go. … He’s our general. And he just makes plays all over the field.”
White and David have put up impressive numbers: The pair’s 81 combined solo tackles and 116 combined tackles is the most of any duo this season, and they have missed only two combined snaps. Their 5.5 sacks and 14 combined pressures is also first among inside linebacking duos in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Lavonte David And Devin White By The Numbers
|White||NFL Rank||David||NFL Rank|
|Pass rush win rate||42%||1||28%||9|
|Tackles for loss||9||8||7||22|
They’ve collected some impressive awards, too: David was awarded the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, and White was just named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
But to truly understand how much White and David have meant to the defense, take a closer look at the ways Bowles uses them:
1. Stunts. Here the Bucs cross-rush David and White up the middle with a stunt (also known as a “twist”) to force a hurried throw from Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “They twist so well together,” Arians said. “Both of them [have] such speed that has made them ridiculous in the pass-rush game.”
Sometimes it’s not about blitzing but bringing the illusion of pressure. An example: Todd Bowles drops Shaq Barrett and Anthony Nelson into coverage (it’s Cover-3) and runs a cross stunt with Lavonte David and Devin White to force a hurried throw. pic.twitter.com/veM91Zh3PY
— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) September 30, 2020
2. Pre-snap movement. See how much pre-snap movement is happening against the Raiders? Five ultimately rush, with David dropping into coverage and White getting the sack.
As a QB, it’s so hard to make calls against a defense that is doing so much pre-snap. ILBs Lavonte David and Devin White switch sides, then walk up to the line of scrimmage, while OLBs Shaq Barrett and JPP walk back, then JPP lines up off David’s shoulder. White gets the sack. pic.twitter.com/BUCwqtCC6H
— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) October 30, 2020
3. Versatility. This play against the Packers resulted in a split sack between David and Jason Pierre-Paul. You’ll see David coming in on a blitz, while White and Shaquil Barrett drop into coverage. “Sometimes I’m off the edge, and sometimes I’m in coverage — you never know what you’re going to get,” David said.
Against the Packers here, you’ll see JPP comes across Rick Wagner’s body to rush inside and Lavonte David catches Aaron Jones off-guard. Shaq Barrett occupies the attention of both Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis at the LOS but as you can see, he drops into coverage. pic.twitter.com/h2PpfDRq4P
— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) October 30, 2020
‘I felt like a robot’
The 2019 season was one of growth for both players, as well as the defense, which was trying to bounce back from a poor season with so many new pieces — including White, the Buccaneers’ fifth overall draft pick.
White came down with a severe case of tonsillitis in Week 1. Then he suffered a sprained MCL, forcing him to miss three games. The infamous stiff-arm from McCaffrey came in his first game back, in London in Week 6, while he was in a bulky brace.
“Having to wear that brace, it was challenging. I felt like a robot,” said White, who had never missed games or practices since he started playing at age 5. “I think it just made me more patient.”
But by Week 9, he had shed the brace and ran more than 50 yards and reached 22.8 mph chasing down Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson to not only make the tackle but strip Carson of the ball. It was the fastest play by any front-seven player and third-fastest of any linebacker since 2016, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month the last two months of the season.
“Toward the tail end of the year — after the injury early on in the season — you could see him get comfortable out there, and you could see his natural ability start to take over,” inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said.
“He’s running the show,” Arians said. “He’s got Lavonte next to him, so it’s easy to look over and say, ‘What do you think?’ They work really, really well together on getting the checks and everything that we want to do and getting us in the right fronts and making sure the back end is connected.”
The 30-year-old David is impressed with his 22-year-old teammate.
“The thing that makes Devin White such a special player and special teammate is his focus, his will to try to go out there and make every play and try to do everything within his job,” David said. “He’s somebody you have to account for, and he’s always willing to learn, he’s coachable, he asks a lot of questions.”
In addition to calling the plays on defense, White was voted a team captain this season alongside David.
“It says a lot because not only what he does on the field, but what he does off the field — how he puts in the time, he’s a guy who’s accountable,” David said.
‘He fits everything’
For David, 2019 meant a scheme change when Arians was hired, going from being a 4-3 weakside linebacker his entire career to becoming an inside linebacker in Bowles’ one-gap scheme.
“I didn’t know how good of an all-around linebacker he was because I rarely got to see him play,” Bowles said. “I’d seen him take pass drops and I thought he was just a Cover 2 guy, but he can do everything.”
Arians discovered that, too.
“Lavonte can play in any defense you want to draw up — he’s a great football player. It’s not really a scheme fit — he fits everything,” Arians said.
Up until last year, David had always led by example but didn’t really say much. But 2019 was a year in which David truly found his voice.
“Just great leadership … and he’s gotten to be very vocal,” Arians said. “Getting that out of him last year I thought was huge for our defensive football team, for having him stand up in front of that group because of the respect factor. He’s done a great job of that.”
“Both those guys just bring energy to our defense, and they’re really the heart of our defense,” rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said.
In Week 2, they held McCaffrey to 59 rushing yards (though McCaffrey spent most of the fourth quarter on the sideline with an injury). That’s when McCaffrey told White, “You’re the best in the league, you know that?”
White responded, “Yes, sir!”
In Week 1, they held New Orleans Saints star Alvin Kamara to just 16 total rushing yards (they combined for seven tackles on Kamara’s 12 rushes). In Week 6, they held Aaron Jones to just 15 rushing yards (they combined for five tackles on his 10 rushes) and combined for 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits on Aaron Rodgers. They also had a combined 18 tackles and five tackles for a loss in that victory over the Green Bay Packers.
“Those guys are so fast. They’re so good sideline to sideline. … You don’t see two inside ‘backers that can run like that a lot,” Rodgers said.
Added Packers coach Matt LaFleur: “They are two of the better linebackers in this league. They flat whipped us.”
Could Arians and Bowles have built such a formidable defense, with so much youth, without David and gotten this quick of a turnaround?
“Maybe, but not as easily,” Arians said. “That’s for sure.”
David laid the blueprint on and off the field for White, who has similar attributes and, in some people’s minds, is having a player of the year-caliber season. They’re both quick, instinctive and seemingly on the same wavelength because of their preparation together — but also because David was in White’s shoes once. As a 2012 second-round pick, David, too, started right away and had to make the calls on defense in his first NFL start.
“We’ve only got a year under our belt [together], there’s still some growing to do,” David said. “He’s always willing to learn. When I point out something small to him, he takes it and carries it over to the field.”
Added White: “I’m the younger guy, so I can have mental lapses sometimes or whatever and whatnot, so he just makes sure that I’m on my P’s and Q’s, and I already know he’s gonna be on his, so we kinda feed off one another.”
The biggest thing they share is trust, which is vital in a defense that is predicated on taking chances.
“It means everything. Trust is everything,” Bowles said. “They trust us, we trust them. And for [Lavonte] to help Devin come along and be the player he is and help everybody on defense, while still being a great player, is phenomenal.”
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