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Bucs linebackers make a splash

TAMPA

Not all of the noise emanating from One Buc Place is about missed team photos, reportedly rigged captain votes and fines for hunting heads. There is a loud chorus singing the praises of the Bucs' bumper crop of linebackers — Lavonte David, Mason Foster and Dekoda Watson — who have made quite a racket in last-second losses to the Jets and Saints. "They've been playing lights out," Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "They're the strength of our team." That was never more apparent than last week against the Saints, when David had 11/2 sacks and Watson and Foster intercepted Drew Brees. Foster turned his pick into an 85-yard mad dash to the end zone, escorted the last 50 yards by David — who occupied Brees, the last hurdle to the goal line. "I owe him lunch for that," Foster said. "I was dead tired, and he ran with me the whole way. That's my brother, and I love playing next to him. So it was great to have him blocking for me. "I knew if I could stay on Lavonte's hip, he would do everything to help me score." All three starting linebackers have at least one sack and an interception, the first time since 1982 three NFL teammates have checked those boxes after two weeks of the season.

David, 23, the fastest and most instinctive of the group, made a huge impact as a second-round pick from Nebraska last season, leading the Bucs in tackles and calling all of the signals. This season, he leads the team with 21/2 sacks, three tackles-for-loss and four quarterback hits.

Foster, 24, is in his third season from Washington and has made the biggest improvement.

Before this season, he looked, at times, as if he was plodding and unsure of himself while being a liability in coverage.

Watson, 25, out of Florida State, excelled on special teams for three seasons before winning the strongside spot in training camp.

To be fair, the unit is even deeper when you include Jonathan Casillas, the former Saint who signed during the offseason, and veteran Adam Hayward, who can play all three positions.

"All of those linebackers are playing great," said former Bucs safety and current Fox analyst John Lynch, who will call his third straight Tampa Bay game today. "We saw Lavonte do those things last year. He's so instinctive and fast, and he's gotten better. He didn't take his greatness for granted and is raising the bar.

"Mason is the one who has really elevated his game against the run, the pass and rushing the passer. Maybe it just took another year in the system."

The Bucs' linebackers also have shown a knack for getting into the face of quarterbacks.

Tampa Bay's nine sacks are tied with San Francisco for the NFL lead. Six have been the product of blitzing linebackers.

"It's like being back in college," Foster said. "Seeing Lavonte make 12 tackles, I've got to make 13. It's one of those things where we continue to push. He's one of my best friends, so when I see him make a play, I want to make a play, too. I don't want to sit there and listen to him talk about all the plays he made. That's what we try to do: keep trying to make plays."

Unfortunately for the Bucs, there have been two mistakes that might be the difference in them being 2-0 instead of 0-2.

After sacking and intercepting the Jets' Geno Smith, David's out-of-bounds push of the quarterback resulted in a 15-yard penalty, which led to the winning field goal.

"I felt bad for the kid," Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said.

Last week, checking out of man-to-man coverage with the play clock winding down, a communication error resulted in a blown coverage and 56-yard touchdown pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.

So much was made of the additions to the Bucs' secondary — Revis and safety Dashon Goldson — but other teams have noticed the second level of the defense.

"They've got really athletic linebackers," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "And they can really rush the quarterback.

"It's going to be a big challenge for our offense to stay on the field, convert third downs and, ultimately, score points."

Revis put it in terms only the players caught in the swirling rumors at One Buc Place could appreciate.

"Lavonte … if he doesn't get a Pro Bowl this year, something is wrong," Revis said. "It's rigged. The voting is rigged."

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@tampabay.com and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620. Follow him on Twitter at @NFLStroud.

Bucs linebackers make a splash 09/21/13 [Last modified: Saturday, September 21, 2013 10:21pm]

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