Buccaneers inside linebacker Lavonte David is slept on. Even he thinks so. I've wracked my brain for multiple seasons now, trying fruitlessly to figure out why that is. In the Pro Bowl specifically, I get that the Bucs' former 4-3 defensive scheme and David's subsequent 'outside linebacker' designation grouped him in with pass rushers that had gaudier stats. But even without Pro Bowl nods, he still wasn't getting All-Pro considerations and he wasn't in the national conversation of the league's best off-ball linebackers. So, why? Why in the world is that?
While this may sound like a copout, I think I've gotten to the bottom of it: he's too consistent.
Yes, I realize that's kind of like answering 'I'm a perfectionist' when asked for your weakness at a job interview but hear me out. I arrived at this conclusion when sitting down to watch some of David's film this season and identify his standout performances. I truly didn't know where to start. There was a case to be made for just about every week this past year that David was at his best. When asked for David's best game, even his coaches couldn't tell me.
"He did well every game."
Cool. Super helpful. But also, not wrong. David is a victim of his own consistency. He's not super flashy (though he did have some splash plays). He's not loud and boisterous (except when his teammates need him to be). He's the model off-ball linebacker, who covers sideline to sideline, plays the run when he needs to and comes in with a clutch play every time. And we condemn him for it. It's just expected from the now nine-year NFL vet. And expected, simply put, gets no recognition.
I almost have to wonder if it's better this way. Does it provide the fuel to keep David going year in and year out? Does it become this insatiable need that drives him?
If that's the case, by all means keep sleeping everyone. But I have a sneaking suspicion David would be just as good with or without the praise, which is why I'm highlighting *some* of David's best plays in 2019 below.
Week 4 @ Los Angeles
This was one of those splash plays I was talking about – probably the splash play of the season. The Bucs were firing on all cylinders against the Rams, which meant David was on a whole other level. Tampa Bay was up 14-0 going into the second quarter where we find Jared Goff and Co. faced with a third down-and-four at their own 31-yard line and desperately needing a score to get back in the game. The Bucs are showing pressure, with David up on the line in a two-point stance, flanking Ndamukong Suh as the nose tackle lined head-up over the center in the 0. The Bucs are in a dime package, meaning six defensive backs on the field, and even have Sean Murphy-Bunting on the line.
At this point, LA is most likely expecting a blitz, which is what helps David out tremendously. What ends up happening is an initial three-man rush before box safety Jordan Whitehead joins the party. The key here is both inside linebackers drop back into coverage. David just reads Goff's eyes and backtracks to undercut his intended receiver. It works and David jumps up to make the interception. His awareness level is just off the charts, as is his ability to get to the spot he needed to be.
And just in case you think, well of course David isn't rushing the quarterback, he's an off-ball linebacker that's great in coverage, watch this play from later in the game where David does rush Goff, nearly getting there before Goff gets the ball out. David was credited with one of two quarterback hits this game, though.
Week 8 @ Tennessee
If you absolutely had to pick which game was David's best, it might be in Tennessee against the Titans. I say that not just because he had a season-high 12 combined tackles, but because he did a little bit of everything. He was the thorn in running back Derrick Henry's side. He forced incompletions. He even harassed quarterback Ryan Tannehill, though that won't show up on the stat sheet.
First, let's look at his effectiveness in the run game. Henry had one of his lowest rushing totals of the season against the Bucs and it was due, in part, to David stopping him at the line.
Here's David stopping him for a loss with the help of outside linebacker Shaq Barrett.
The Bucs are in a base front and where the Titans think they are opening an A-gap hole for Henry to run through, really they've opened up a hole for David to shoot, which he does. Henry's blockers are too busy with Vita Vea and Will Gholston to worry about David as he takes Henry head-on while Barrett beats the tackle and gets his hands on Henry's legs.
Here's David stopping Henry for a loss with the help of Vea.
Vea is shaded to the closed side, which pulls the center away from the open side A-gap that David is hovering over. It allows David to get in the backfield and wrap up Henry from behind as he runs into Vea. David essentially follows the Tennessee blocker right to Henry. He also gets through before the Titans guard can get to him showing great quickness. Ndamukong Suh even comes in to clean the whole thing up, though the tackle was credited to both David and Vea.
Now, here's David stopping Tannehill for a loss all on his own.
SHEESH. Tannehill fakes the handoff and tucks it himself, probably instantly regretting it. Gholston has commanded a double team on the edge, leaving Barrett completely unaccounted for on the edge, which was Tennessee's first mistake. Lucky for the Titans, Barrett bites on the fake and goes after Henry. No matter because David sees this, sees that Henry doesn't have the ball and comes down to lay the boom on Tannehill in the backfield resulting in a two-yard loss. Again, David's awareness and instincts are just unmatched.
Speaking of those instincts, not only did David get it done against the run in the Music City, he was great in coverage (as always), too.
Why, yes. That is Vita Vea you see dropping back in coverage on a tight end. What's crazy is if David didn't come down to make the tackle, Vea probably would have made it anyway. But David did make the tackle, because of course. Bucs are in a zone coverage and David is reading Tannehill the whole way. He lets the wide receiver go on his out route, knowing the corner is staying down in the flat, instead coming down to play the tight end in the hole. Because of the immediate contact, Jonnu Smith isn't able to get a handle on the ball and it results in an incompletion for Tennessee and a pass defensed for David.
Week 16 vs. Houston
I'm not saying I wanted to highlight this game because it was immediately after David (again) got snubbed for the Pro Bowl, but I'm not not saying that. He sure did a good job reminding everyone what a travesty it was that he wasn't selected by his production against the Texans. If he was a thorn in Henry's side against Tennessee, he shifted his focus to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (who had his lowest receiving total of the season and second-lowest of his career) and well… any Texans receiver… against Houston.
A lesson in patience and anticipation, courtesy of Lavonte David.
Houston likes to confuse opponents with motion pre-snap and then continues its redirection post-snap, too. You see the receiver come across the formation in the pre-snap motion but watch number 87, the tight end, right after the play begins. He sneaks behind the line and releases into a backside route. David sits back though, reading quarterback Deshaun Watson and sees 87 is uncovered. David comes down to lay the hit on him and the Texans end up with nothing because of 54's patience and anticipation.
The very next play, he stops Hopkins on third down and nine for a minimal gain. This wasn't so much anticipation as it was David proving he's still got it when it comes to closing speed.
Again with the redirection, but David isn't fooled. Watson laterals it to Hopkins, hoping Hopkins' speed can catch the Bucs off guard. He wasn't accounting for David's speed though, who recognizes the play and books it over to wrap Hopkins up after cornerback Carlton Davis gets a hand on him to slow him up.
One more on wide receiver Will Fuller, just for good measure. Just look at how instantaneously David is there, reading and reacting perfectly.
I've saved the best for last. Perhaps one of David's best traits is his knack for punching the ball out. It's beautiful. He had three forced fumbles on the year and as it stands now, ranks sixth among all active players since he entered the league in 2012. He's got the most fumble recoveries of any active player in that span, too. And while he didn't recover the below, the Bucs did, resulting in a change of possession thanks to the rookie Devin White and just check out how pretty the play was.
Watson hands off to the running back, who shoots what would have been the B-gap to the closed side, where David is set a few yards back and overtop the C-gap. The recognition here is great, sure, but the nuance hardly even shows up on tape. David goes low to make the tackle and the momentum of the hit causes Johnson to cough the ball up. And while that may look like a happy accident, when that's your third forced fumble of the season, I'd venture to say it's no accident at all. It's intentional and it's art.
That's MY Pro Bowler.