Tandem At Linebacker Generating Buzz In Tampa
By Corbin Smith
Establishing balance between the passing and running game can be a critical key in finding success on offense, and this principle also applies on defense. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team had much greater success establishing this balance on offense than it did defensively in 2012, as the team ranked at the top of the league in rushing defense but failed to stop opposing passing attacks. Fixing a spotty secondary became a major priority for Tampa as the team traded a first round pick for superstar corner Darrelle Revis and added dependable safety Dashon Goldson through free agency to start this process. The team also brought in Johnthan Banks with its second round pick to compete against Leonard Johnson for the second corner spot behind Revis.
Revis has not made his Buccaneers debut to this point, but the secondary has already shown signs of improvement during this preseason. Banks has had rough patches, especially when going against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots during joint practices two weeks ago, but he has made adjustments and continued to look better each week. Second-year safety Mark Barron has looked much more comfortable than he did as a rookie and will benefit greatly from playing alongside Goldson on gameday. With Revis close to returning and a young nucleus of players to build depth around him, head coach Greg Schiano and his staff have plenty of reasons to be excited about the prospects for this talented group. Make no mistake, however: the heart and soul of this defense lies within its brilliant core of linebackers and this group has generated a much-needed buzz for the franchise this preseason.
While the Buccaneers as an organization have excelled at bringing in high quality players along the defensive line, management has done an even better job finding potential stars to rebuild a once aging, declining group of linebackers. After Derrick Brooks retired, the team shuffled players in and out of the middle searching for long-term solutions in the interior of the defense, but even players like Barrett Ruud, who showed great potential, ended up flaming out. The Bucs used multiple top draft picks trying to find the next Brooks, and after several players failed to come close to filling the void, Tampa brought in Mason Foster and Lavonte David in successive drafts. Having a strong defensive line played an important role in the team’s ability to shut down running lanes, but Foster and David have quickly developed into tackling machines that force opposing teams to game plan around them.
Schiano had a strong first draft with the Buccaneers, and David proved to be the most valuable asset from the draft class. The former Nebraska standout arrived at camp and quickly made his mark, prompting the staff to install him as the starting middle linebacker during the course of the preseason. Like his rookie teammate Doug Martin, David’s production in a normal year most likely would have garnered greater Rookie of the Year consideration, but outstanding seasons by Panthers LB Luke Kuechly and Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner earned more national recognition. As a rookie, David made a whopping 112 solo tackles, which ranked second in the entire league behind LB James Laurinaitis of the St. Louis Rams. He made disrupting opposing backfields a weekly habit out of the gate as he recorded 19 tackles for a loss and had four games with double digit tackles.
When asked about David’s potential at a recent press conference, Schiano pointed to the ceiling and said, “I think he will be better this year. I think he can be a special linebacker. When I say special, I mean, with time, he can become one of those guys way up here.”
As if David’s emergence would not be enough on its own to fire up Buccaneer fans, Foster has quickly blossomed into a versatile outside linebacker who has been equally successful in two seasons with the team. In his first season with the team in 2011, Foster racked up 84 tackles, but his fundamentals needed plenty of work. He managed to build off of his stellar rookie season to make 82 solo tackles on his own last season, and the two sensations combined to make a total of 246 tackles for Tampa Bay in 2012. Foster struggled with missed tackles as a rookie, but he did a much better job finishing plays last year and looks to be even better this preseason.
With both players under 24 years of age, Schiano has a lot to look forward to as these talented linebackers continue to learn and develop as players. As well as they have played in limited action, however, both players have plenty to work on as the regular season approaches. The secondary deserved to be chastised last year after the Buccaneers ranked dead last against the pass, and the team had to be aggressive in fixing this part of the defense. But not all of the blame can be passed to the back half of the defense, as the team had a mediocre pass rush for most of the season. With Michael Bennett, the team’s leading sack artist from 2012, leaving for Seattle this offseason, Tampa Bay will need to find other ways to generate pass rush. Schiano hopes the return of Adrian Clayborn and improved performance from Da’Quan Bowers will put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks up front, but David and Foster will need to provide more than the combined four sacks they accounted for last year.
As poorly as the secondary played, the linebackers were also guilty of struggling in coverage against the pass. Between the two of them, Foster and David only deflected six passes and combined for a measly two interceptions. Many of the times where corners and safeties ended up getting beat for deep pass plays happened partially because of poor coverage in the middle of the defense, and the Bucs have been working on addressing this issue throughout the preseason. Both players possess the athletic ability to be steady in man and zone coverage schemes, but they will need to continue to grow in the mental aspects of the game to take the next step and move towards becoming more complete linebackers. The preseason has given plenty of reasons for optimism that both players will improve as all-around pass defenders, as David sacked Joe Flacco on the first drive of the preseason and Foster simply looks more comfortable in coverage.
Lavonte David and Mason Foster appear to be primed for big seasons, and more help could be on the way. Fourth-year Florida State product Dekoda Watson has played sparingly during his first few NFL seasons, but he has been a revelation during training camp and looks ready for a breakout year. Watson has great size (6-2, 240 pounds) and has great athletic gifts, but he came to the league as a raw, undeveloped talent. With several years now under his belt and a real opportunity to contribute, Schiano believes that Watson will become a force starting alongside David and Foster this season. With steady performer Jonathan Casillas behind him, the team has more depth at the position than they have had in years.
The secondary has to play better for the Buccaneers to fulfill playoff aspirations, but increased contributions from a talented group of linebackers in the passing game will play a vital role in this team’s success. If these guys can stay hungry and motivated, there is no reason to believe this group can't develop into one of the best in the NFL this season.