Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs' David on way to greatness

TAMPA

There is something familiar in the way he runs. On the field, Lavonte David moves across the field like a predator closing in on lunch. He is uncommonly fast, and he almost never seems to take the wrong path to the ballcarrier.

If you didn't know better, you might swear you had seen this kind of speed before — in a linebacker named Derrick Brooks.

When David hits, something tickles at the memory, too. David tends to knock ballcarriers backward. There are the kinds of hits that normal players have, the ones where they wrestle a ballcarrier to the ground. Then there are the ones with the quick, loud sound of a fender-bender where the play ends all at once.

Time was, you saw that kind of hit coming from a safety named John Lynch.

There is something you have seen before in David's instincts, too. The ball seems to love him. It bounces off a receiver's hands, and it caroms straight to him. A teammate jars the ball from a receiver, and again it goes directly to David, the way the ball always seems to bounce toward the great players.

You know, the way it used to gravitate toward a cornerback named Ronde Barber.

In some ways, David, the Bucs' latest great defender, is a bit like all of them blended together. He is a little undersized, like Brooks, and a little humble, like Lynch, and a little underappreciated, like Barber. Ask those guys. They'll tell you David is moving into their neighborhood.

After all, David is more than just one of the finest linebackers in the NFL. He is a ballplayer. All he does is make a difference.

David was all over the field in Sunday's 27-6 victory over Buffalo. He intercepted two passes and returned them for 57 yards, and he had a sack, and he had nine tackles, and he had two tackles for loss, and he had two quarterback hits, and he had two passes defensed, and he joined the cheerleaders to dance in a rousing version of Sweet Home Alabama.

Okay, okay. I'm kidding about the last one.

Actually, it was Ramblin' Man.

During the course of Sunday afternoon, as David was clinching a Pro Bowl berth, he also flirted with the record book. He is now one of four players, and the only linebacker, who have had six sacks and five interceptions in the same year. For a 23-year-old guy in his second year, that isn't bad.

"That's a big deal isn't it?" David said, grinning slightly. "I really don't pay attention to the statistical things. It's all just a matter of playing hard. Obviously, that's a great accomplishment. The game of football has been around a long time."

The odd thing is that David might be the least-impressed guy in the locker room about his play. The Miami native keeps talking about his teammates. He keeps talking about playing hard.

If you press him, David will say he is a driven player. He says he plays with a chip on his shoulder from all the doubts that followed the 6-foot-1, 233-pound linebacker into the NFL about his size. Yes, he finally says, he wants to be a great player.

There is a fine line between humility and confidence. Brooks knew that. He had an internal fire, a personal swagger he rarely let others see. So did Barber. So did Lynch. No one gets to be a great player without wanting to be and without working for it. The key is that you want everyone else to think of you as a great player without you saying it.

For David, those kinds of reviews are coming.

"I think he's playing as well as any linebacker in the league," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "I really do. He does everything —tackle, pass (coverage), blitz. There is nothing that guy can't do. He's a really fine football player, and as I've said before, he's an even better person. You can't ask for a better work ethic. Everything about the guy, he's special.

Whenever these Bucs need a big play, they look to David. The entire Bucs defense had a good day, mind you, against a Buffalo offense that had trouble pointing in the same direction. Quarterback EJ Manuel was particularly lost, suffering seven sacks and four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 31.2.

For David, this game was like a highlight reel. He has been good in most games since he joined the Bucs as a second-round draft pick last year out of Nebraska. On Sunday, he was better than good. He was great.

Ask defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who plays directly in front of David. That means McCoy doesn't get to see a lot of David until he gets to the film room.

"I called him the Flash last year," said McCoy. "His speed is ridiculous. And for him to (weigh) in the low 200s and to hit people the way he hits them … he's all over the field.

"The dude has out-of-this-world stats. I love him. I'll fight anybody for him. That's my guy. It's amazing."

So, Gerald, if you are rating outside linebackers, where do you rank David?

"One," he said. "Because he's Lavonte. My little brother."

The truth? The truth is David isn't the biggest linebacker in the NFL. But you don't have to be big. You have to be good.

Brooks knew that. Lynch, too. And Barber. And the rest of the great defensive players in Bucs history.

These days, it isn't a stretch to mention David's name with any of them.

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