Last Thursday, three days before the Bucs traveled to New Orleans to do battle against their hated division rivals in the Saints, I wrote that the Tampa Bay linebacker duo of Devin White and Lavonte David had to be elite for the Bucs defense to succeed in the divisional round of the playoffs. There was an especially significant onus on White to step up his level of play after getting shredded in Week 9 against New Orleans in the Bucs 38-3 loss.
Boy, did he ever.
Returning to the lineup after missing two consecutive games following a COVID-19 positive test, White was the best player on the field for either team on Sunday night, making an unbelievable amount of elite plays in coverage and in the run game. What is wildly fascinating about White’s dominant performance is that it involves very little impact as a blitzer, typically his best skill. Instead, White did exactly what I wrote he needed to do last Thursday – stay disciplined, process-then-react, finish plays in space and play with better technique in coverage.
One of the things that had to improve for White in the divisional playoffs was his tackling, as the Saints love to get the ball to their play-makers, especially Alvin Kamara, in space. On Sunday night, White checked that box emphatically. Look at him come in balanced to wrap up a Kamara cutback attempt in the open field.
In writing about Week 9, one of my main takeaways was White’s overaggressive nature and tendency to get out of his own assignment trying to play hero ball. But on Sunday night that was almost never the case, as White stayed under control, processed his keys and attacked without overrunning plays. This was especially evident in his few man coverage reps, as White has struggled with his technique and footwork in these situations all season, but not on Sunday night.
Kamara is one of the toughest backs in the league to cover on this Texas route out of the backfield, but look at White staying square, reading Kamara’s break and mirroring the back while swatting the pass away on a diving effort. This is high level stuff from White that we really haven’t seen all season. The second-year linebacker’s emergence in coverage over his past three games has been an extremely welcome and pleasant surprise.
A big part of it is mental processing. When you have White’s elite physical and athletic tools and can play under control to key-and-diagnose offensive plays at the second level, you’re going to be a beast.
I loved this play near the end of the game. With the Saints down 10 late in the fourth quarter, everyone was obviously thinking they would throw the ball on this 3rd-and-4. But White stayed with his reads, didn’t start dropping out early and made an unbelievably athletic tackle on Kamara to hold this damage to four yards.
Sidebar: this is also an amazing play by Lavonte David, as the Bucs are out-gapped up front and he has to get outside of the puller to turn this run back inside where the weakside linebacker and filling safety can make the stop. David not only does that, but he also spins out of the block to help out on the tackle. Crazy good.
Shout out to the defensive line for bottling everything up on this one, allowing White a clean read from B to D-gap, where he scrapes and fills to stand up Kamara in the hole. Great job avoiding the block of right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, otherwise this could have been a big gain.
White’s ability to read his keys and track the running back’s movements was next level in this game. Early in the game the Saints tried to spread out the stout Bucs defensive line and find cutback lanes when the linebackers over-pursued, but White wouldn’t oblige.
As soon as White sees Ndamukong Suh win the backside A-gap, White knows Kamara is going to cutback to try and find a crease. So the linebacker cuts back with him, sifting through the trash to drop the Saints star running back at the line of scrimmage with a bear hug tackle.
The Saints tried to counter later in the game by running Emmanuel Sanders across the formation on a fake split zone action before leaking out into the flat.
Sean Murphy-Bunting does an awesome job of sifting through the trash to track Sanders across the field in man coverage, but even he can’t beat White to the play. This is the kind of play White would have chased to the opposite sideline before realizing the deception a month or two ago, but on Sunday night he stayed home, saw Sanders coming across the formation and then mashed the gas pedal to make the stop in space.
It is just so hard to work perimeter concepts and outside runs against the Bucs’ speed at linebacker. The Saints knew this and tried to quick snap the Bucs before they were ready. It kind of worked, but White made the play anyway.
While David is still getting the defense lined up, the Saints quick snap the ball hoping to get Kamara a soft edge on the jet sweep. They do catch David with his head turned, but White’s speed from the backside is so significant he’s able to make the play anyway, with an assist from Anthony Nelson pushing Kamara backward and not allowing him to turn the corner with speed. There are only a few linebackers in the league that can make this play, and the Bucs have two of them.
Finally, the play of the game. With the Bucs up 23-20 with the clock winding around seven minutes to play, White snatched his second career interception by reading Drew Brees like a book in zone coverage.
With the Saints looking for a big play against the Bucs’ 4-deep coverage, Sean Payton called for three vertical routes to the boundary, forcing the boundary safety to take the post and putting the outside cornerback in conflict on the outside nine route or the running back seam. Brees stares at the post pattern by Cook hoping White will fall off on the pattern, allowing him to work back to Kamara on the seam route. But White stays flat-footed and breaks on the ball perfectly, reading Brees’ eyes and snagging the pass before it can reach Kamara (it also looks like Kamara and Brees weren’t on the same page).
The subsequent return showed off White’s running back background, as he fought off and evaded tacklers to get all the way to the 20-yard line. On a night where the Bucs offense struggled mightily, don’t underestimate how big White’s returns on his fumble recovery and interception were, as well as Murphy-Bunting’s.
There was no question that for the Bucs to shut down the Saints offense on Sunday night, White needed to be special. He struggled at times in Week 1 and Week 9 against New Orleans, and there was little doubt that Brees and Payton would attack him again. When they did, White answered the bell over and over and over again, making splash play after splash play in his return to the Bucs’ lineup, finishing with 11 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one pass breakup, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Next up, a Green Bay offense that will test White in every way, even more-so than they did back in Week 6, when White had one of his best NFL games against the Packers in a 38-10 victory. If the former fifth overall pick is going to start stringing performances together like he has during his last three outings however, the ceiling for this Bucs defense just went back up this postseason.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft