The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Washington's Mason Foster in the third round of the 2011 draft and Nebraska's Lavonte David in the second round of the 2012 draft, and may have ended up with its most impactful corps of linebackers since the halcyon days of Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles.
The second Sunday of the 2013 season might not have been the best time to bring this point up to David or Foster, or fellow Buccaneer linebackers Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas for that matter. Their Buccaneers had just dropped a second straight game on a last-second field goal to start the season, making it hard for any of the team's players, on offense or defense, to feel particularly good about individual accomplishments.
Still, what the Buccaneer linebackers have done through just two weeks is beyond impressive, with David and Foster leading the way.
In the one-point Week One loss to the New York Jets, Tampa Bay's linebackers accounted for 23 tackles, four sacks, four tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, an interception, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. Turns out, they were just getting started.
On Sunday, Mason Foster rambled 85 yards with a fourth-quarter interception, just finding the end zone on a play strongly reminiscent of that made by Pittsburgh's James Harrison on the same sideline of the same field at the end of the first half of Super Bowl XLIII. At the time, that put the Bucs up, 14-13, a lead they would hold until the last seconds of regulation, when K Garrett Hartley would give the Saints a walk-off win with a 28-yard field goal. Foster's play was the splashiest of the day, but it was far from all the Bucs' LBs accomplished.
This time, that group combined to record 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one quarterback hit, two interceptions, one tackle for loss and four passes defensed. Watson produced the game's first turnover, a first-quarter interception in Saints territory that set up a touchdown to put Tampa Bay up, 7-3. The Buccaneer linebackers led an effort that took Brees down four times and picked him off twice, holding the high-powered Saints' offense to just one touchdown. Foster also had a key fourth-down stop on a goal-line stand just before halftime.
"I think definitely we've showed that we're a good team and we can play with anybody," he said. "We just have to finish games, all across the board. You can't point your finger at one little thing – it's every little thing. You can't look back and say, 'If he would have made this tackle, if he would have made this catch…' So we've just got to keep working. I think we're headed in the right direction. We just have to finish, and keep grinding on the little things and we'll be alright."
Foster's interception runback in the fourth quarter was the third-longest in team history and it was a wild ride, with him narrowly avoiding going out of bounds in Buccaneer territory, then following a convoy of blockers towards the opposing end zone. RB Pierre Thomas almost got him at the 10 but he fought off that would-be tackler and then rolled over WR Robert Meachem to get the last few feet at the goal line.
"Really, the return goes to the whole defense, because I was a little bit winded and rumbling a little bit but they all helped me by getting blocks and everything," said Foster. "It was a great team effort."
If just one more little thing had gone the Bucs' way, maybe a more successful third-down run at the end of their last possession or a tipped pass in the last 30 seconds, Foster's play would have been a game-winner, and a lead highlight on all the postgame shows. Eventually, such big plays will lead to victories, if the Bucs' linebackers keep producing the way they have through two weeks. In this particular case, it was a marriage of good preparation and the right execution. Foster figured QB Drew Brees would be looking once again for TE Jimmy Graham – he of the 10 catches for 179 yards on the night – and he snuck into the right spot to make a play. Unfortunately, Brees was left with just enough time to make a play or two of his own when it counted.
"It's just something we practiced all week, starting on the line and then dropping [into coverage]," said Foster. "I had a feeling he might not see me, and 80 [Graham] was his guy on third down. So it was just a great call and I tried to make a play.
"He's a great quarterback, and he did what he had to do, made the plays when he had to. We got him in the right position, but this is a tough one. You have to tip your hat to him – he made a lot of great throws."
Foster and his fellow LBs deserve a tip of the cap in their direction as well for their play through two weeks. The Bucs may not be able to enjoy it much to this point thanks to an 0-2 start, but the rapid manner in which their linebackers are racking up impact plays suggests some very successful days down the road.