-Expectations are deservedly high for third-year inside linebacker Devin White, who had a heck of a 2020 season that culminated with a 'game-sealing' interception in Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs. As an inside backer, he finished the regular season with 9.0 sacks, the most among his position group league-wide and it's only fair to have expected the same level of play from him coming into 2021. And don't get me wrong, he's delivered. He still leads the team in tackles and though he doesn't have a sack yet this year, he has seven quarterback hits. But where White maybe looked to take a step forward in the pass rush, the rash of injuries to the Bucs' defense has taken him on a bit of a different path, according to Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.
"With a lot of injuries, we're kind of using him in different ways and asking him to do different things. Right now, we're asking other people to be more impactful. He's probably doing more covering and more leaving and dropping in terms of those types of things. He is doing everything we're asking him to do and he's playing fine."
White's coverage skills were something he wanted to improve upon this year and especially with big brother Lavonte David currently out with an ankle injury, White has had no choice but to step up. He's played the most coverage snaps (207) of any inside linebacker with at least 250 reps so far this season, while having the third-highest blitz percentage at 21.3%.
Yes, he's still effective in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, White's 21.9% quarterback pressure rate since 2020 is the highest among players with a minimum of 150 pass rushes. In fact, he recorded the highest quarterback pressure rate of his career between weeks five and six this season, tallying seven pressures on 20 pass rushes, giving him a 35% QBP. And among inside linebackers this season with at least 250 defensive snaps, White has the highest QBP rate with 26.8%.
Safe to say White is doing it all right now and the gaudy stats will likely come when it's his turn to get them.
-One guy who's glad White is on his team so he doesn't have to deal with any of that pressure: Tom Brady. Though he's the second-least pressured quarterback in the league thanks to his quick release and stellar offensive line, Brady – at 44 years old – has found himself in the wide open world outside the pocket a few times this season.
"I think that's something that I want to even improve as we kind of move through the season," he said on Thursday. "We're trying to stay extra and do a lot of footwork stuff. We don't run that much, so I think it's really important to keep your legs in shape and keep your bend. You never know when that one or two plays ultimately [come when] you're going to have to be out of the pocket and make that scramble play. I think you just have to be ready. That's not probably the most natural thing for me, as we know, but at the same time I think it's – you know we made a play out of the pocket on third down the other night that was a big part of the game. We're going to need to make those plays. You see a lot of young players scramble and make those plays. The problem out there is it's definitely more susceptible to getting hurt, there's no doubt about that. When you get outside the pocket, at least for me, things move pretty fast and you're less protected. If you've got the ball in your hand, they're trying to get you."
This comes after Brady had an offseason knee procedure. Reports came out that Brady played the 2020 season on a torn MCL so it's natural to wonder if his increased mobility was maybe there all along with the injury preventing him from taking full advantage of it in this offense last season.
"Obviously, he's feeling better," laughed Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. "Obviously, he's feeling something. It scares the hell out of me. I'm not going to lie; it scares the hell out of me. But obviously, you know he's having fun. He's having fun. I just try to make sure he doesn't do anything reckless. I was the guy who couldn't run too. It is an unnatural feeling when you're in the middle of the field running the ball in your hands and you're not known for running. So, I know he feels the same way, but obviously, he's made some plays outside the pocket. He works on those things. We work on those things every day. They don't just happen. We want him to be careful with what he's doing."
"I think sometimes it's a little bit of a surprise when he's running out there," smiled Brady's center Ryan Jensen. "But man, he's looking pretty quick for being 44. It's a surprise at times, but the way the defenses have been playing us a lot, he has to extend plays at times and he's been doing good and executing it when need be."
-It's probably also a testament to the trust he has in his offensive line – that even when he escapes a bit, they can keep up with him. The line has put together a really great body of work overall through six weeks of the season. The last three games, not only have they protected Brady, but they've also allowed for over 100 yards on the ground from Buccaneer backs.
"In the last three weeks, we've really improved on the run game from a communication standpoint to the execution," Jensen said. "I feel like that has shown. We had a couple little extra player meetings just to be on the same page and to make sure we're seeing things the same. It really helped a lot in the last three weeks. Hopefully, it can continue in the weeks following."
-And Leftwich doesn't want the offense to stop at just improving on the run. He's got bigger plans.
"I don't think we've reached our potential at all," he said. "I think we've got to continue to stress the importance of the details every day of what we're trying to do. We don't have anything that I feel that I'm out there going, 'Man, we've really got this nailed.' There's a lot of things we need to do better. In the pass game, throwing and catching, all of us being on the same page of what we're doing, a bunch of different looks. Now we're kind of getting into a part of the year where teams are starting to show kind of what they are. There's a good sample size of information about how they're going to play defense and who's going to be out there and who they like and who's struggling and so forth. It's really hard early in the year, I think the first couple games, [to know] who's going to be playing for them and what are they going to do. Are things going to be different than last year? At least now you can kind of hone in on what the opponents are doing. They're not going to change too much from week to week. I certainly feel we have certainly a long way to go."
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