Jones: A very loud play for quiet leader Lavonte David

Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) returns an intercepted pass from San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) for a touchdown  during the second half. ]LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) returns an intercepted pass from San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) for a touchdown during the second half. ]LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Dec. 5, 2016

SAN DIEGO — The ball ricocheted into the air and came down in the sure hands of Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. All that was in front of him was 15 yards of wide open spaces, the end zone, his team's first lead of the day.

And — how about this — a tie for first place in the NFC South.

As soon as he intercepted the ball, he was thinking touchdown.

"Of course," David said.

Teammate Adarius Glanton thought David would "Deion it in." That means dance the ball into the end zone like Deion Sanders used to do.

"I was that wide open," David said.

But, like everything David does, he played it cool as he scored the key touchdown in Tampa Bay's weird but welcome 28-21 victory Sunday over the Chargers.

"I was just thinking about getting into the end zone as quick I could," David said. "And then celebrate with my teammates."

And well after the game, his teammates celebrated David.

"Love it, man," linebacker Kwon Alexander said.

"A great player," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "He's one of the reasons I wanted to come play here."

"He's special," rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said.

Talk to the Bucs' defensive players and you start to understand how much David means to this team.

He hasn't had the type of year Tampa Bay fans are accustomed to seeing from the fifth-year linebacker. Normally a tackling machine, among the best in the league, he has seen his numbers go down in 2016.

"Lavonte, I think, has had a solid season," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "I know his numbers are not what they've been in the past, but what he's doing for this defense is an integral part of what we're trying to get accomplished."

Alexander, who dresses in the locker next to David, was more blunt.

"A lot of people have been doubting him because they think he hasn't been playing like he used to play, and he just shut them up," Alexander said. "He plays with heart. Makes big plays. Love that guy."

He made the biggest play Sunday.

Tampa Bay was sputtering on offense and was trailing 14-10 late in the third quarter. On a first down at his own 8, Philip Rivers threw a quick slant to Tyrell Williams. But Hargreaves broke up the pass.

"Oh man, great play by Vernon Hargreaves getting a hand on the football and tipping it up," David said. "Coaches always preach running to the football when the ball is thrown. That's what I did."

David's pick-six gave him takeaways in three consecutive games.

"The turning point of the ballgame," Smith said.

And not just because it flipped the scoreboard.

"It gets the whole team going," Hargreaves said. "Everybody loves a defensive touchdown."

The defense has as much to do with this team's success as anything.

It stymied Kansas City. It shut down Seattle. And it stopped San Diego when it mattered most. David's pick-six won the game, while safety Keith Tandy's late interception in the end zone saved it.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.
Subscribers Only

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

And look where that defense has Tampa Bay (7-5) now: tied for first in the NFC South headed into a Sunday home game against the Saints.

"Stay humble," David said.

He was talking about the Bucs. But he easily could have been talking about himself.

David is not the type to brag about his play. He just makes plays.

His teammates are the ones who brag about him.

"I love playing with him," Grimes said. "We all do."

Particularly on Sunday.