Tampa Bay’s linebackers have improved from being the weak link of a soft defense to a position of strength. Lavonte David, Mason Foster and Dekoda Watson have combined for three picks, two forced fumbles, and five and a half sacks already this season. To put into perspective just how improved this unit is, consider that in two games those numbers represent more big plays than they had in all of 2012.
In 2010 Tampa Bay ownership took advantage of the uncapped year by spending as little money as possible, about $30 million less than what had been the previous year’s floor and about $45 million under what the cap would have been, had there been one that season. The following year rather than sign a veteran free agent at a critical position of need – a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense – they opted to start a third round draft pick at the position.
Not surprisingly that player, Mason Foster, was overwhelmed and overmatched in his adjustment from Central Washington to the NFL, and was not particularly productive on a team that went 4-12 and gave up a league-worst 30.9 points per game.
The following year many thought the Bucs would draft CB Morris Claiborne, but I thought the better choice would be to go with Luke Kuechly to upgrade the MLB position. The Bucs passed on both, trading back to choose safety Mark Barron. The reason was simple: as bad as that position has been for the Patriots with the revolving door of Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo since Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders were shown the door, it has been even worse for Tampa Bay.
The other part of the equation was that Foster was quietly improving to the point where the club felt confident in leaving him at the position.
Tampa Bay then went and added a player to their linebacking corps than many Patriot draftnicks were very familiar with and hoped would land in Foxboro: Nebraska’s Lavonte David in the second round of the 2012 draft. Together with 2010 draft pick Dekoda Watson, the three have grown together professionally, bonding on and off the field. Consider how Foster assesses the group:
“Me, Lavonte and Dekoda, we hang out all the time. After practice all we do is talk about football. That’s how we hang out. We play video games, we talk about football and we talk about what (our next opponent) is going to do. I feel like it’s helping us. The way that we’ve played has shown that us studying together is working. It’s pushing us. We’re pushing each other and competing. Dekoda got his pick (against the Saints), and I said, ‘It’s about time I got myself a pick.’ Lavonte got his sack (also against the Saints), and then we all were trying to get ours.”
Similar to Foster, Lavonte David’s play has dramatically improved. In the last seven games he has two interceptions and 4½ sacks; he had none of either in the first 11 games of his NFL career.
David concurred with Foster , saying “that’s one thing I’ve been working on during the offseason: learning even more about this defense so I can make more big plays. I’ve been working on it in the offseason and it’s paid off. Hopefully it will carry on throughout the season.”
David of course is more well known for the infamous penalty for a late hit that set up the Jets week one game winning field goal, but looking beyond that his full body of work has been very good thus far. In that game he had eight tackles, a sack and an interception, and rather than hang his head he bounced back from adversity with six tackles and 1½ sacks against the Saints. Just before halftime Foster and David combined for a key goal line tackle on RB Mark Ingram to prevent a touchdown.
Later in the game it was David leading the way blocking for his teammate when Foster intercepted a Drew Brees pass in the red zone, returning it 85 yards for a pick six.
Foster said that “Lavonte made a great block. I knew I had to stay on my feet no matter how tired I was. The whole defense was right there with me. I knew I could give the offense good field position.”
“Lavonte is a great player and a great person. Anytime you lose … both of us take it really hard. He came out in practice really hard. We were in the film room a lot this week to make sure things like that (penalty) don’t happen again. Even though I don’t think he was to blame in the first place, he took it tough and bounced back and showed he’s one of the main reasons why this team is the way that it is.”
Bill Belichick has taken notice as well, stating that “their linebackers are fast, too. Dekoda Watson and David, and of course, Foster. Those guys are all very active. They pursue well. Their safeties are like linebackers. They’re fast and they close down those spaces. I think that’s what you see. You see an opening it looks like the back is going to gain some yards and all the sudden it’s second-and-8. Then there are other plays and they knife into the backfield and it’s second-and-13. Those holes don’t stay open very long.”
For the Patriots to succeed Sunday, they are going to need to minimize the number of big plays that the Buccaneer linebackers make, and keep them from getting into the New England backfield and disrupting the Pats offense. I see two tactics that the Patriots can employ to neutralize the Tampa Bay linebackers.
1. Get TE Zach Sudfeld more involved on offense
All of the off-season hype about Sudfeld has died down, but let’s not forget why Patriot fans were so excited about this guy. He’s a freak: players that are 6’7″, 260 are not supposed to be able to run a 4.7 forty and have soft hands that catch most anything thrown his way. As good as the Tampa Bay linebackers are, this is still a big mismatch that heavily favors the Patriots. Putting him on routes down the seam draws thos linebackers away from the line of scrimmage and will wear them down trying to keep up with him. The Pats targeted Sudfeld just once at Buffalo; now that his hamstring is better, Sudfeld needs to become a major part of Sunday’s game plan.
2. Slow down the pass rush with screen passes
Whether it be a quick screen to one of the wide receivers or a delay to one of the running backs, slow down the Buc linebackers with screens. Again, this is a mismatch that favors the Patriots by getting speedier players open in space. The added advantage is that as the game progresses those defenders will have to honor that play; that extra split second gives Tom Brady the extra time he needs to find the open receiver with a clear passing lane.
One final thought from Tampa Bay DE Adrian Clayborn, another very good player quite capable of wreaking havoc on the Pats offense: “If you look at the our last two games, if we finished those last two drives we would be 2-0. And we would be proud of what had done. But you can’t be proud of 0-2. There are still little details we can correct that will make us even better and stop losing these games. It is nice to see all those things but they don’t mean jack when you keep losing.”
While Bill Parcells famously stated that “you are what your record says you are”, I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that the Patriots are 2-0 and the Bucs are 0-2. Right now these are two very evenly matched teams, and this should be a very close game. The Bucs are the first team in NFL history to lose the first two games of the season on field goals in the final five seconds of play; that’s an outlier that won’t continue forever. Although I expect the Patriots to come out on top Sunday, I would not consider a victory by the Bucs to be the least bit shocking.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots
1:00 pm ET, Sunday September 22 on FOX
Line: Patriots favored by 7; total 44½
Pick • Patriots 20, Bucs 17
Bucs +7; under 44½ (one unit)
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