If you want to play linebacker in the modern NFL, you’d better be versatile. The days of the Mike Singletary-style ‘backer who stayed in the middle and just crashed forward to stop the run are over in an era when teams on average play base defense less than 20% of the time, and dime defense more than 20% of the time. Now, the best linebackers can do everything from blowing up run fits to playing the slot credibly to rushing the passer from multiple gaps. Anything less that, and you’re a liability — and that will show up in your snap counts.
That said, there are times when even the best linebackers should have their roles reduced from a variety perspective. Devin White, the second-year star for the Buccaneers, has the most sacks among off-the-ball ‘backers with nine, the second-most total pressures with 31, the fifth-most stops with 56, and the ninth-most tackles with 95.
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
That’s the good side. The bad side? Per Pro Football Focus, White has the most targets in coverage among off-ball ‘backers with 98, and he’s allowed the most catches (86) for the most receiving yards (761), the second-most yards after catch (410), the second-most touchdowns allowed (four, tied with several other linebackers), and an opponent passer rating of 112.6. If White has an absolute dominant trait to his game, it’s his knack for creating quarterback pressure. If there’s an obvious liability, it’s White’s ability to hold up in coverage. That may change over time given White’s eagerness to improve, game intelligence, and physical gifts, but we are where we are with this.
Devin White: Forward, not backward.
It matters very specifically when it comes to the Buccaneers' opportunities to beat the Saints in the divisional round. New Orleans swept the regular-season series, and in those games, White allowed 15 catches on 17 targets for 108 yards, 65 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Conversely, White had no quarterback pressures of any kind in either game -- no sacks, no quarterback hits, no quarterback hurries. Zip, nada, bupkis. This is as antithetical to a player's skill set as you'll see, and if the Bucs want to get off the schneid, this had better change. In those two games, Drew Brees was pressured on just 20 of his 65 dropbacks. He was sacked twice, but he also completed nine of 17 passes for 79 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 104.8. Part of the reason for this is the Saints' quick game. Brees has averaged 2.47 seconds per attempt from snap to throw this season, which is eighth-quickest among quarterbacks who have taken at least 50% of their teams' snaps. Brees also has 18 touchdowns and one interception on throws he gets off in less than 2.5 seconds, per PFF, as opposed to eight touchdowns and five interceptions on throws that take more than 2.5 seconds. If you let Brees control the time, you're dead. If you force him to prolong plays with pressure and coverage, you've got a shot. It's as simple as that. White could (and should) be the key to forcing Brees to make bad decisions under pressure, as opposed to making Brees' eyes light up when he's in coverage.
The best game plan against Drew Brees? It's obvious.
White missed the regular-season finale and the Bucs' wild-card win over Washington after he was placed on the Reserve/COVID list, but he's back just in time for this game, and head coach Bruce Arians is rather excited about that. "First, let me say how [well] Kevin Minter played in those two ballgames," Arians said this week. "He was outstanding [and] did a great job. But he's not Devin. Bringing Devin's passion, his energy [and] his speed – hopefully, he can get after the quarterback some like he's been doing so well. You're bringing back one of the top players in the league." Arians was also asked about how White can affect New Orleans' offense with pressure -- as he most certainly did not in Week 1 and Week 9. "You would hope so. But again, the ball comes out of [Drew Brees'] hand so quickly – it's hard. You can get your hands up and maybe bat some balls around, but I thought the Bears did a really good job [in the wild-card round] of containing him other than that first drive where they played all that zone. They've got so many weapons and he knows where that ball is going by the time that back foot hits, so if you're going to get to him, you better get in there free." This quote tells you a couple things -- you're probably going to see one of those Todd Bowles game plans in which the Bucs marry multiple fronts and aggressive coverages as opposed to a bunch of static fronts and spot-drop nonsense, and we've already discussed that. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2021/01/07/anatomy-of-a-wild-card-win-buccaneers-defense-must-return-to-the-aaron-rodgers-plan/ The second thing Arians' quote tells you is that the Bucs are rightly concerned about Brees' ability to get the ball out quickly and thus negate the pass rush. That doesn't mean you have to take White out of the pass-rush plan and sentence him to a three-hour purgatory of bad coverage. On the contrary -- White is uniquely suited among players at his position to provide quick-game pressure in the pocket, and to track down mobile quarterbacks when they're forced to move. Brees obviously fits both categories.
White's multiplicity as a pass-rusher can change any game. Anything else is a mistake.
White had three sacks in two different games this season -- in Week 7 against the Raiders, and in Week 15 against the Falcons. Those games also reveal a lot about how versatile White is as a pass-rusher, and why this should be his primary responsibility against the Saints. Worried about Brees and the quick game? How about having White cheat up pre-snap and then delaying a blitz to stop a pass from a short drop, as he did here against Matt Ryan? And here, White becomes a gap-spinner from the second level, finding the open gap as a running back would, much to Mr. Ryan's consternation. And if Brees wants to get frisky outside the pocket -- or if Taysom Hill is running to the outside -- White has the diagnostic ability and catchup speed to make that a problem. Here, he chases Derek Carr down from deep coverage and makes an impressive hit to end the play. https://twitter.com/BryanDFischer/status/1320500486416416768 White can also win off the edge, as he showed in this Week 6 sack of Aaron Rodgers. It’s a bear front concept with White and Lavonte David as the edge defenders, and Shaquil Barrett, who’s normally an edge-rusher, working in the middle linebacker spot. At the snap, both White and David take off for the quarterback. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins double right defensive end Ndamukong Suh, running back Jamaal Williams whiffs on the cross-block of David, and David gets to Rodgers just before Barrett can. After the play, Rodgers can be seen yelling at everyone unfortunate enough to be in his general vicinity. So, White has demonstrated the ability to get after the quarterback from just about anywhere. It's time for the Buccaneers to let him unleash it against the Saints. “We always knew he was a great blitzer,” Arians said after the Raiders game, per Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire. “They [White and Lavonte David] both are. That’s the beauty of it, when he comes up the middle, he is a force. If we can get him on the back or they run twists so well together too. So, I mean he’s a dynamic player. Both of them with such speed that has made them ridiculous in the pass rush game.” White, for his part, is more than ready to take on whatever role he's given. "I think we've got to let our guys just be [themselves]," he said on Wednesday, when asked how the Bucs can limit Brees' ability to extend plays. "We can't overdo anything and we can't get out of our means. We've got [edge-rushers] Jason Pierre-Paul and we've got Shaq [Barrett], so we've got to let those guys get after him because that's what they do [and] that's what we pay them to do. We need to let them do it. "We've got to stay sound in the front with our two tackles without letting them push the pocket and let the outside guys do what they've got to do. I think the thing that [can] throw Drew Brees of is we've just got to be physical with the receivers, tight ends and the running backs. Don't let them play pitch and catch – I think that will be the biggest 'it factor' for us. If we come out physical and we get our hands on those guys, I think we'll do a great job." Well, yes, but if the Buccaneers fail to avail themselves of the NFL's best pass-rushing off-ball linebacker doing what he does best, it may be the last game plan they get to draw up this season.