A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' preseason matchup with the Jaguars.
Some questions remain regarding the final makeup of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' linebacking corps for the regular season. This does not appear to be one of them: "Can those linebackers make a big impact in 2017?"
The Buccaneers have stars at every level of their defense, including five-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy on the line and last year's NFL passes-defensed leader, Brent Grimes, in the secondary. Through the first half of the preseason, however, it looks like the linebackers will be the heart and soul of Tampa Bay's rising defense in 2017.
"Our depth a linebacker, even though we lose a really good player from last year in Darryl Smith, our depth at linebacker is much better than it's been in my time here," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter after his team defeated the Jaguars in Jacksonville, 12-8, on Thursday night.
In that Week Two victory, former All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David recorded four tackles, two for a loss, a sack and a pass defensed. Reserve linebacker Adarius Glanton, who shines on special teams and can play all three positions on defense, accounted for the Bucs' other sack. Tampa Bay's defense pitched a shutout in the first half before the starters exited, and the starting crew has yet to allow a point in about three quarters of play, total.
The dominance was nearly complete in the first half of Thursday's game, with Jacksonville managing only 59 total yards. After leading all teams in Week One of the preseason with 207 rushing yards against New England, the Jaguars' ground game was limited to exactly one yards before halftime, 57 by game's end and 2.9 per carry.
"They hit some big runs on us during practice, and we challenged the guys to stop their run game, and try to get them behind the chains, and our first team defense did a nice job. Chris Conte, Lavonte, Gerald, Clinton McDonald, the first group did a nice job."
Through two weeks, starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander has eight tackles despite limited playing time. David has five stops and is the only player on the team with both a sack and a pass breakup. Two players are vying for the starting strongside spot next to Alexander and David – second-year player Devante Bond and rookie Kendell Beckwith – and both have been outstanding in camp and early in the preseason. Bond had five tackles as the starter in the opener at Cincinnati before suffering a knee injury that currently has him sidelined. Beckwith started in his place on Thursday and is tied for the team lead with nine tackles. He also had a sack in the preseason opener and is tops on the defense with three tackles for loss.
Beckwith has been one of the Buccaneers' major surprises of 2017 so far, not because the team doubted his talents when they took him out of LSU in the third round, but because he sustained a torn ACL just last November. He made a very rapid recovery to be ready for the start of training camp and hasn't slowed down since.
WATCH: BUCS VS. JAGS HIGHLIGHTS
"He's playing big right now," said Koetter of Beckwith, who is in fact the biggest of the Bucs' linebackers. "He's really playing stout. You know, we loved him coming out of LSU, and we were fortunate that he was there when we picked him, because if he didn't have that knee, we thought he would have gone higher. I said multiple times, the fact that he's come back quick off that knee, and then, a lot of guys, when they do come back, they're tentative for a while. That kid is not tentative, he's a very quick learner."
Bond, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve and is thus in a fairly similar situation to his rookie teammate, has had his momentum slowed by the knee injury but still has a good shot to carve out a role in the Bucs' defense. Presuming good health for both, it wouldn't be surprising to see both Bond and Beckwith making an impact this year, no matter which one wins the SAM job.
The battle for potentially two more reserve spots may turn on special teams contributions. The Bucs have holdovers Glanton and Lynch, plus former CFL standout Jeff Knox and undrafted rookies Riley Bullough and Richie Brown. It was Glanton that made the biggest impression on Thursday after sitting out the preseason opener. He could prove to be a perfect backup for David and Alexander.
"Well, he's really not playing a whole lot of SAM," said Koetter. "He is one guy that can play at all the spots. He missed last week, so that was his first action. He is primarily a MIKE and a dime in our terminology. He showed up big in two huge plays. We're so fortunate to have him because he can play all of the spots, and he's a really good special teams player. Every time he got in a game last year, he played well. He just is behind two really good guys."
So far, linebackers have accounted for three of the Buccaneers' four sacks and seven of their 12 tackles for loss. David and Alexander are excellent in coverage as well, while Bond showed some pass-rushing skill at Oklahoma and during the first two weeks of camp. Beckwith has simply made an outstanding all-around impression. It's only mid-August, but if the Buccaneers' defense can be as sharp as it was during the second half of 2016, it may be a deep and impactful linebacking corps that leads the way.