TAMPA — Devin White called his shot. With his team clinging to a field-goal lead at New Orleans last Sunday, the Bucs linebacker knelt next to assistant coach Larry Foote on the sideline and predicted the predicament he was about to put the Saints in.
“I’m going to put the dagger in them,” White said. “Watch.”
Nobody can take their eyes off White. Not after his prophecy came true when he intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees to set up the Bucs’ clinching touchdown in a 30-20 win that sent them to today’s NFC Championship Game. And not after his 11-tackle, one-interception, one-fumble-recovery performance on that postseason stage, one that announced his arrival as one of the league’s top defensive stars.
White provides the Bucs with a jolt of unfettered energy and a menacing presence off which the rest of the defense — if not the entire team — feeds.
Watching White’s breakthrough performance was Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp. In an NFC division playoff game at Green Bay to cap the 1997 season, Sapp sacked Packers quarterback Brett Favre three times in a 21-7 loss.
“It’s the stage,” Sapp said. “You’ve got to go to work. The world is watching. I introduced myself to the world by sacking Brett Favre three times in Lambeau, and it was 13-7 when we were going into the fourth quarter. … (Favre) broke loose from me and walked over to (coach) Mike Holmgren, and I told Favre, ‘You tell your coach I’ll be over here waiting.’
“I introduced myself to the world. I know what it was, because I got on that plane, and we were flying home, and I looked at my phone, and I had 100-and-something messages.”
Today’s NFC Championship Game at Green Bay is being billed as a matchup between quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Bucs and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers.
But the Bucs have scored 27 points off turnovers, most of any team in the playoffs. White’s performance is not surprising, especially considering he led the Bucs with 140 tackles and was second with nine sacks in the regular season despite missing the final regular-season game and the wild-card win at Washington while on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
White’s range, nose for the ball and ferocious tackling style are unsurpassed by any player on defense.
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“I feel like I’m the image, I’m the heart and soul of the defense,” White said.
White’s first big play in New Orleans came when he scooped up a fumble caused by rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who stripped the ball from tight end Jared Cook.
Trailing 20-13 and with the Saints having crossed midfield, White’s fumble recovery set up the Bucs’ tying touchdown.
But it was White’s interception that got Sapp and most of Tampa Bay to its feet.
“Oh my God, what a play by Devin White,” Sapp said. “That kid is fast, I’ll give you that. You know, the NFL isn’t hard if you just do a little film study and watch the guards, and the fullback will take you right to the ball. Stop talking and play what you’re looking at all week, young man.”
After his interception, White stiff-armed Saints receiver Marquez Calloway and returned it 28 yards to the New Orleans 20-yard line.
White had been considered a liability in pass coverage this season, allowing a completion percentage of 87.8 while giving up 761 yards and four touchdowns, according to the advanced statistics website Pro Football Focus.
What made him confident enough to forecast the play that he did?
“Because I knew it was time for me to step (up) to make a play,” White said. “I had been playing good, but I felt like I hadn’t made the big play. And I wanted to make one of the biggest plays of the game to put my stamp on that game. I knew it was time on that series because we were only up 3, so I knew the game was still a tight one, and I didn’t want it to be a tight one.”
Still disappointed by not making the Pro Bowl, White doesn’t view the game as his introduction to NFL fans.
“No, because I really don’t care anymore,” he said. “It’s not about what people think of me. It’s about what I think of myself and what I put on tape.”
The Bucs destroyed the Packers 38-10 in Week 6. White was all over the field in that game, recording 10 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and two quarterback hits.
The Packers have improved since, and Rodgers is the favorite to be crowned the league’s most valuable player. But White believes the Bucs’ defense is better, too.
“I feel like we’re more fundamentally sound,” he said. “I feel like we’re playing the system even better. Whatever (defensive coordinator Todd) Bowles calls, I feel like we execute it even better. We have some lapses sometimes, and that comes with it, but we don’t break down. We might bend, but we don’t break. We just always find a way to make up for anything that goes on out there.
“We’re trained up to stay the hungriest team. There has always been a target on our back because of the caliber of some of the players on this team. We still have that hunger, that grit, to us that we have to go out there and we have to be the one to throw the punches first.”
Don’t be surprised if White uses his dagger again today.
“Great players usually smell blood in the water,” Bowles said.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD.