Watching tape with Buccaneers star linebacker Lavonte David

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If you want a look under the hood of the Buccaneers’ championship defense — the same defense that put Patrick Mahomes in a bag and kept him there in Super Bowl LV — it’s best to ask the guy who’s running it. Not defensive coordinator Todd Bowles — though that would be huge fun (how about it, Coach?), but in this case, we’re talking about linebacker Lavonte David, selected in the second round of the 2012 draft out of Nebraska. David has been that defense’s shot-caller for years, when it was really, really, bad, and now, when it’s really, really good. David’s level of performance has never wavered, and he had one of his best seasons in 2020.

Off the field, David is highly interested in mentorship and giving opportunities to students who don’t have the resources they need, which is why he has formed the “Lavonte Legends” foundation, dedicated to “helping public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity by assisting college bound students who are succeeding academically but are financially challenged.”

“The goal of my foundation is to give deserving youth a chance to achieve their academic goals,” David says on the foundation’s website.

In a recent interview, I asked David about his new foundation, and we then discussed his roles in Tampa Bay’s defense. Then, he went over five of his plays from the 2020 season, in which he played a major part of a defense that became exponentially tougher to deal with as the season went along.

Doug Farrar: Tell me about the foundation. Why you started it, and what you want to accomplish with it?

Lavonte David: The Lavonte Legends Foundation — I started it two years ago, but it’s not going to officially launch until this year. But it’s about helping youth — I’m all about helping the youth. I’m a brand ambassador for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and mentorship is a huge part of it. So, the whole thing is about helping kids with funds — helping them get scholarships, and funding kids who can’t get there on their own. I just want to give them the opportunity to go to school and reach their dreams. I feel like the more you preach to kids how important education is, the more seriously they’ll take it.

DF: You’re talking about a mentorship mindset, and that shows up for you when you’re on the field. Where does that mindset come from for you?

LD: I don’t know, man — it’s just… I just go out there, and I am myself. I feel like people just gravitate toward me. I try and take that and reach as many people as I can. It’s just always been that way — off the field, people have ideas or they want a second opinion on something, I get contacted by a lot of people. That’s just the kind of person I am, I guess. I take pride in being kind, and just do my best to be there for people. I would definitely credit that to my mom; she was a very kind person, and a lot of people reached out to her when they were in tough situations.

DF: Of course, as the shot-caller on the defense, you have to be a bit more direct at times. Were you calling the defense from your rookie season?

LD: Yeah, from my rookie season. We had a veteran [linebacker] in there — Mason Foster, he was calling the plays. And then, the night before the [first] game, the Saturday night meeting, the came to me and said, ‘Lavonte, you’re going to be calling the plays.’ I’m like, ‘What? I ain’t called the plays all camp! And you’re going to throw me in the fire on a 1:00 Sunday afternoon?’ This was the first time they were going to hear me talk and communicate. I took it as a challenge. I had my ups and downs with it, but I’m used to it now. I don’t call the plays anymore; they gave that job to Devin White. He’s the true ‘Mike’ linebacker. He does all that, and I just try to help him out like guys helped me out when I came up.

DF: Since your rookie season of 2012, you rank first among linebackers in starts (137). solo tackles (806), and tackles for loss (128). Your 24 forced fumbles ranks And you’ve been excellent in coverage. How is it, then, that you’ve only made one Pro Bowl and have just one All-Pro nod? Do you feel that you’re underrated? Because it sure looks like it.

LD: Yeah, of course I feel underrated, man. You know how the game goes. Been putting up all these numbers, but nobody was seeing it because I was on a team that wasn’t winning a lot of games, and we weren’t on national television. I still feel like I’m underrated, but times are changing. Now, we get the opportunity to play a lot of nationally televised games, and people get to see and appreciate the things I put out there. No matter what, though, I get to go out there and have the opportunity to play this game I love, and that’s what I’m going to to. People can decide if I’m top-notch or not, but me personally, I know what my peers think. This last year, I didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but I did make Second-Team All-Pro. So, it’s all good. But at the end of the day, I know my worth, and I know what I put out there on the field. I know I’m one of the best to play this position.

DF: You’ve had quite a few defensive coordinators in your time with the Buccaneers — Bill Sheridan, Leslie Frazier, Mike Smith, Mark Duffner, and now, Todd Bowles. Bowles has been Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator since 2019, during which time the Buccaneers went from dead last in Defensive DVOA in 2018 to sixth in 2019 to fifth last season. What is it about Coach Bowles that makes his philosophies such a perfect match for your personnel?

LD: Yeah, not to go off-topic, but that’s another thing people don’t understand — I’ve done this through five different defenses. But that’s neither here nor there. Bowles, man, he simplified things. His whole philosophy is to make it easier for us, and harder for the offense. The main thing about his defense is, all you’ve got to do is to communicate. When everyone’s on the same page, everything works out just fine. After the ball’s hiked, it’s just going out there and playing and having fun. He wants to give guys the opportunity to go out there and have fun and play fast and play free. You look at the stuff we do on TV, it may look difficult, but it’s not that difficult at all. It does make it difficult on offenses, but from my standpoint, everybody’s got a job to do, and nobody’s job really changes that much. It’s a pleasure to be a part of it.

DF: There hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl winner since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004, as I’m sure you’re aware. What could allow the Buccaneers to break that trend and “run it back?”

LD: I just feel like we have that underdog mentality. Even though we won the Super Bowl, that’s the 2020 Super Bowl, and that’s over with. It’s a whole new season. We’ve already talked about when we get back, we have to start the new season. From what I’ve heard, that’s where most [defending Super Bowl championship teams] get messed up. The great thing about it is, we’re bringing all 22 starters back, so there’s going to be some good chemistry and camaraderie. The main thing is, we just can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We’ve got the team to do it. We’ve got the leaders in the locker room to do it. It’s just about keeping that underdog mentality and going out there and trying to dominate.

DF: That said, let’s look back a bit at your plays from the 2020 season.

Sack 1 vs. Aaron Rodgers -- Week 6, 2020

DF: Todd Bowles' game plan for the Packers was so diabolical, I wound up writing an entire article on it. And you had two sacks of Aaron Rodgers in this game, out of what looked like completely different concepts. On this first sack, you and Devin White are basically lined up as edge-rushers, and Shaquil Barrett, who's your primary edge-rusher, is lined up off-ball with the blitz. You had seven snaps as a right outside linebacker in this game, and 96 overall throughout the season, including 20 snaps in Week 3 against the Broncos. When Coach Bowles calls what I might say are those inverted rush packages where you and Devin are the rushers, and Shaq Barrett is the off-ball guy, what are you trying to do to an offense with this? Is it primarily to create chaos with the protections?LD: Yeah, it's just messing with the offensive linemen and the quarterback -- [messing with] the protections. When you see guys like me and Devin coming off the edge, you never know if we're going to come, or we're going to drop into coverage. And you see Shaq in the middle, you never know if he's going to blitz up the middle or he's going to drop into coverage. He can do both. Our coaches are trying to give offenses different looks. He can do both. We may come, and sometimes, we may go sometimes. Shaq may come sometimes, and he may go sometimes. You never know what you're going to get, and if you [block] the wrong guy, and the lineman slides the wrong way, it creates chaos. Just different looks upfront, and it's fun, man. We get a chance to show our speed off the edge, which we don't get to do as off-ball linebackers. We like to work out our pass-rush moves and talk trash to Shaq and JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul] whenever we get the chance. DF: Well, this isn't fun for Packers left tackle David Bahktiari, because he's pinching inside to take Ndamukong Suh, and Shaq Barrett is coming, around your edge. Which means that running back Jamaal Williams has a difficult blocking decision to make.

Sack 2 vs. Aaron Rodgers -- Week 6, 2020

DF: Your second sack of Rodgers, which you shared with Jason Pierre-Paul, came off a great design in which Pierre-Paul stunted inside, taking the left tackle with him, and you went outside with only the running back [Jamaal Williams] to stop you. Not a great matchup for the Packers. What is the design of this play, and how much does Todd Bowles' creative pressure concepts help you and your teammates get to the quarterback?LD: Just a little delay. We'd been off the ball, me at my regular position, and we're just doing it differently a little bit. JPP pulls the tackle with him, and that gives me a clean look off the edge. The whole concept is just getting me one-on-one with the back, and as you can see in this instance, the back was a little slow to come back to me. The main thing is getting me one-on-one with the back, and create pressure on the quarterback ASAP. And that's what happened. JPP had a great stunt, creating room off the edge for me, and that gave him a chance to add on for the sack, too. I was trying to get that full sack, but they wrote it down as a half. The great thing here is that we're working collectively. Everyone on the defense is holding their looks, and it looks like a regular defensive coverage. But having the blitz come behind it helps them [the defensive backs] out, as well. DF: The other thing about this play that stands out from your perspective is how well you turn the edge. You almost have to have edge-rushing characteristics here -- you're not just blowing through a gap.LD: You've got to bend the edge, man -- got to make the edge shorter. You've got to stay on the track. JPP redirects, and if he funnels the quarterback outside, [Rodgers] could come directly to me. And vice versa -- if the quarterback goes back in, he could go directly to JPP. It all works together. DF: Do you think you could get 10 sacks a year as an edge-rusher?LD: I don't know -- it's hard down there, man! I'd have to be working at it. But if I was born as an edge-rusher and had been playing it my whole life, yeah, I probably could.

Interception vs. Broncos -- Week 3, 2020

DF: This interception of Broncos quarterback Jeff Driskel in Week 3 came off another fascinating pressure concept -- this looks like a six-man blitz until you and Devin White drop into coverage, and Anthony Nelson gets through on Driskel's front side to get the pressure, Lock throws the ball up, and there you are. Driskel's problems are compounded by cornerback Carlton Davis blitzing off the edge. What are your coverage keys here? What are you guys playing?LD: It's just a regular fire zone behind. I'm a flat defender, but it looks like a two-high zone. What you try and do is, you condense it. You have the two interior defensive linemen go inside, but you condense everything, so the outside guys come off the edge. You want that free release off the edge. But then you have another guy [blitzing], and that really messes it up [for the offense]. You don't know who's blitzing from where, and me and Devin are dropping as flat defenders. I got a chance to break on this, and you'd think the quarterback would have tossed it deep or thrown it away, but Nelson did a great job of coming underneath and getting his hand on the quarterback and disrupting it.

Incomplete pass vs. Aaron Rodgers -- NFC Championship game

DF: I had a couple of questions about this play -- first, you're signaling to your teammates before the play. I'm always interested in this when I see it; who are you telling to do what here? Then, at the snap, you're taking off covering Jamaal Williams, but you have the presence of mind to deflect the attempted pass to Davante Adams, who doesn't seem happy about it at all. Is your key here to just cover Williams when he's to your side?LD: In this instance, I'm talking to Devin and [safety Jordan] Whitehead -- we all have to work together. Here, I have the back in coverage, and it's difficult because I could get picked. So, I'm asking Devin and Jordan to cover me up for my coverage -- just replace each other if the back goes out right away. DF: You mentioned the back going out right away and possibly getting picked -- what route from the back would cause that?LD: If he went straight to the flat. or did an out-and-up, or a wheel route. It's a long way for me to go. We talk it through, and if the back goes 'out right now,' to the side with the two tight ends, it's possible that I could get picked. So, one of those guys would replace me [in coverage], and I would cover them up and take their man. Fortunately here, the back wound up flipping [to the other side of the formation], so it made my job easier here. Once the ball's snapped, I can just go get him. I should have intercepted this pass. Stuff like that, I always go back and think -- we won the game, but that play right there would have separated me from everybody else in how I think of myself -- as being one of the greats. The greats make that play, so I have to be able to make it easier for our team.

Incomplete pass vs. Travis Kelce -- Super Bowl LV

DF: The well-told story of Super Bowl LV was how your defense was able to pressure Patrick Mahomes, especially given Kansas City's offensive line issues, but I was fascinated by how you were covering Travis Kelce. On this play early in the third quarter, you're outside with Kelce and you follow him inside. Is this a look where you're spinning to 2-man? And on these plays where you're breaking up the quick slants to Kelce, would you be responsible for coverage if Kelce went deep up the seam or elsewhere? And overall, what was the plan for you to cover Kelce throughout the game?LD: Yeah, this is 2-Man all across the board. Me being outside and off [in coverage], I'm giving my cornerback the right of way. And then once [Kelce] comes back in, I can get more aggressive on him. I can put my hands on him because I have two-high help, and he ended up slipping here, and the quarterback was in a little bit of trouble. He's really trying to scramble here. But this is really where they made their plays at. Kelce is obviously a guy [Patrick Mahomes] always looks for, and he's a dominant tight end. So for me, in the week of practice, we really practiced stuff like this -- when you make their quarterback scramble, we have to stay on our guys the whole time. I just got into that mode -- when the quarterback scrambles, I just have to keep my body on the receiver. Like I said, he slipped, and I was able to stay in phase and make a play. DF: You mentioned having deep help, but in this coverage, if Kelce heads up the seam, he's your guy no matter what? LD: Yeah, he's my guy throughout this whole down. If he goes up the seam, what I could try to do is slip underneath and push him to my high safety. And if he goes shallow, I just stay on him. I believe this was a third down [Note: it was third-and-7 from the Tampa Bay 34-yard line with :38 left in the third quarter. The incompletion forced the Chiefs to kick a 52-yard field goal, which made the score: Buccaneers 21, Chiefs 9]. I was in a pretty good position. If it's a shallow route, I just follow him, and if it's high, I just push him to my high safety. I understood where my help was, and that allowed me to play aggressively.

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