Devin White, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' demonstrative on-field leader, returned to practice on Wednesday for the first time since being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on the first day of the new year. He found a team that was already matching his well-known intensity level.
"The communication, the focus right now – and today was Day One – was at an all-time high," said White. "It's all about being physical and taking the fight to them. I think everybody's locked in. Yeah, they beat us five times or whatever, but that's in the past. The only game that matters is Sunday night when we walk in the building and they put the ball down."
Wednesday was 'Day One' of the Buccaneers' practice week in preparation for Sunday's Divisional Playoff showdown with the division-rival New Orleans Saints. That's the team that has beaten Tampa Bay five times in a row – including the Bucs' only two losses by more than three points this year – and the one against which White will soon make his NFL playoff debut. His 10 days on the COVID list caused him to miss not only the season finale against Atlanta but also the Buccaneers' first playoff game in 13 years. Fortunately, his teammates carried the night in Washington and moved on to the next round with a 31-23 win over the Football Team. Now White is ready to join that fight.
"It was very difficult not being out there to go to war with my brothers," he said. "But at the end of the day I know we've got great people in line so if one person goes down we can keep it going, we can keep this thing rolling."
White said he assumed his first positive COVID test was a mistake because he has essentially only gone to work, home and the horse barn for the entire season in order to mitigate his risk of catching the virus. Eventually, further tests confirmed the positive, though he never developed any symptoms and was able to put in the cardio work needed to stay read for his return. The only thing he got sick of during his "stupid vacation" was SportsCenter after watching too much TV. He felt particularly good when he got back on the field Wednesday.
"I felt even better in practice today, probably because I've got fresh legs [with] no hard running in 10 days or whatnot," said White. "But I'm still in shape, so that's the great thing. I've been getting my cardio in."
The missed time, the stress of watching his team in an elimination from home, the sudden return to action and the great desire to turn the table on the Saints – all of that could conceivably lead to an emotionally-charged young player becoming too enthusiastic on game day, theoretically. White says that won't be a problem on Sunday night.
"It's Week  now," he said. "I'm a pro. I study the game. It helps that this is our third time [playing New Orleans], so I know the plays, I know the formations. I'm studying it even more and I just know that I've got to be in my spot. It's basically a 'do your job' thing. I can't go out there and try to overly make plays because I haven't played in two weeks. I know every man has a certain gap, I know every man needs to be in a certain spot on the defense. I'm not going to try to overshadow my team for my own success just to make a play. I think that's the number one thing – I respect Todd Bowles' system and I know he's going to put me in position to make plays. When it's time to make a play, I'm going to make a play. When I'm not making a play, I'm going to be doing my job."
White said the Buccaneers need to stay stout in the middle against the run, let edge-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett put pressure on Brees and be physical with Brees' receivers and running backs. As he said, it's a 'do-your-job' approach and a trust in your preparations. That doesn't mean he is lacking in lofty goals for Sunday, however. The potential retirement of Brees isn't a motivating factor, but the circumstances of what could be the future Hall of Famer's last game are.
"The number-one thing is, if I beat Drew Brees I go on to the next round, me and my team, we go on to the next round," said White. "But if it is his last game, I do need to get a pick and a sack off him. That's something that I've got to come through, I've got to make a big play off Drew Brees. I need to make a statement game against the Saints this coming Sunday."