It may feel like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2020 journey to Super Bowl LV began on March 20, when the team made the seismic move of signing Tom Brady, the quarterback who is practically synonymous with the NFL's biggest game. However, the chronological list of the Buccaneers key moves in the 2020 offseason actually began before that momentous day.
For instance, Tampa Bay placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, the league's sack leader in 2019, on March 16, four days before Brady put pen to paper. On that same day, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, the hyper-productive bookend to Barrett on the defensive front, signed a new multi-year deal.
The deal to bring back defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh came about a week after the signing of Brady but was clearly a top goal for General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians all along. Other defensive free agents who would soon fall back into place with new deals included Kevin Minter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Andrew Adams and Ryan Smith. These were clearly goals 1A and 1B – sign Tom Brady and keep a rising defense intact – and neither one would have been effective without the other.
A little less than 10 months later, the Buccaneers are in the Super Bowl after Brady threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns. The big game this year is rightfully billed as an historic matchup of Brady, the 43-year-old G.O.A.T, and the Kansas City Chiefs' 25-year-old passing phenom, Patrick Mahomes. Whereas the Buccaneers' first Super Bowl championship at the end of the 2002 season was clearly the result of a legendary defense at its absolute peak, the 2020 team would seem to be relying on Brady and an offense that ranked third in the league with 30.8 points per game to lead the way. That offense has scored 31, 30 and 31 points in three playoff outings, as well, on the road to the biggest game of them all.
View pictures from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl LV media day.
Listen to Devin White, however, and you might start to wonder if this Bucs team has more in common with the 2002 squad then it seems. White, the incredibly active buzzsaw in the middle of the Bucs' defense, thinks it his side of the depth chart that will lead the Bucs to the championship, and he's felt that way for a long time.
"For me, it clicked last year and more so over the summer," said White, who was named a second-team Associated Press All-Pro in 2020. "We had a great defense last year. If you go look at the numbers – top-five defense, number-one rushing defense, the secondary was extremely young, I was young myself. I talked to Coach BA, talked to Todd Bowles and I said, 'If we can get this defense back, we're going to be the reason why we win it all next year.' And that was just my mindset going into the season. Even before we acquired Tom Brady, it was like, whatever we have to do we're going to be the reason that we get over the hump, get into the playoffs and make a run and get to the Super Bowl."
White led the Buccaneers with 140 tackles and 15 tackles for loss during the regular season and, remarkably, added 9.0 sacks and 16 quarterback hits on top of that. He was the only player in the NFL with at least 100 tackles and nine sacks. But his second NFL campaign wasn't without adversity. A 10-day stay on the reserve/COVID-19 list caused him to miss the regular-season finale and, most painfully for him, the Wild Card game at Washington.
Fortunately for him, the Buccaneers came back from Washington with a win, giving White a chance to see his first postseason action, and he has since made the most of it. In two wins at New Orleans and Green Bay, he compiled 26 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception and one pass defensed. His interception in New Orleans in the fourth quarter set up the game-clinching touchdown in a 30-20 win, and his 15 tackles in Green Bay are the most any Buccaneer defender has ever had in a postseason contest.
If the Bucs' defense is going to be the reason the team wins its second Super Bowl, White is likely to be the driving force behind it. The fifth-overall pick in the 2019 draft had a very promising rookie season, particularly during a second-half surge that brought him two Rookie of the Month awards, but he has quickly found another level in his second year in the league.
"I just feel like I became even more dynamic on the field," said White. "Whether it was leadership, making plays, I feel like I just took it a whole 'nother step. A lot of my thing was game-changing plays, being able to take over games, being able to set the tempo for the defense or for the whole team. I feel like that was a major part of my game. It really just comes from all heart. But I worked on a lot of things. I worked on play-recognition, et cetera."
Overall, the Buccaneers finished the 2020 season sixth in yards allowed, eighth in points allowed, first in rushing yards allowed, and seventh in sacks per pass play. Football Outsiders ranked the Bucs' defense fifth in overall DVOA, one spot better than last year, including first against the run and fifth against the pass. That unit got the big contributions it expected from the likes of Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Suh, Lavonte David and Carlton Davis, as well as a surprisingly big impact by rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. The big step forward that White took, however, was critical to the defense performing as White had predicted it would early in the offseason.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
"With Devin, it's just become like a second hand to him," said Inside Linebackers Coach Mike Caldwell. "He came in as a rookie and his talent was really on display. He was able to run around and make it by natural ability. But I think the mental part of his game has really improved. He can call out plays. He understands what offenses are trying [to do], how they're trying to attack him. He's just really helped out from a leadership standpoint, as far as being out there, being a field general on defense and being able to just lead the defense."
White thought Tampa Bay's defense could be a big reason why Tom Brady would be playing in his 10th Super Bowl. He was right. Now that defense could help Brady get his seventh ring; it could in fact, be the driving force, just as the Bucs' defense was 18 years ago. That's White's plan, at least.
"Especially when we knew Super Bowl LV was in our home stadium, that was always the goal, take care of our backyard, defend our backyard," he said. "We brought everybody back that was here last year that made an impact on the team. If you go watch the playoffs, you go watch a lot of games, you tell me what the defense was doing, and you tell me if the defense is one of the main reasons why we're playing in Super Bowl LV."