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Getting better to be the best: Buccaneers linebacker Devin White

In this new series, we will be looking at players who improved the most throughout the season and helped the Buccaneers take the next step to win Super Bowl LV

NFL: Super Bowl LV-Kansas City Chiefs vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Devin White (45) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So we all know that the Buccaneers won Super Bowl 45 in dominating fashion against the AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs. But, how did they get there? What players made an impact that might not have been there if the game were played in Week One?

In the coming weeks, I will be looking at the film from the Bucs 2020 Super Bowl winning season to see what players might’ve struggled early on, but ended up making the biggest impact on the biggest stage.

One such player that really made strides throughout the season and ended up lighting up the Super Bowl, is none other than Devin White.

To many Bucs fans, White is a top tier linebacker who was snubbed in the All-Pro and Pro Bowl voting process. To those in the more national arena, White is a flashy but inconsistent player who really struggles in coverage and isn’t very good against the run.

No one sums up the national view better than Mike Clay here:

Clay goes on to insinuate that White’s Pro Football Focus grade is indicative of his poor play, which is true when looking at this from a PFF viewpoint as White is graded at an overall grade of 48.1/100. However, I don’t always buy into PFF grades.

While PFF is a great tool, their measurement systems seem to be flawed to some extent and here’s my reasoning. Any system that ranks White as the 62nd ranked linebacker out of 83 eligible players is a flawed system. On top of this, Clay cites that PFF lists White as giving up 86 rec for 761 yds on the season.

I am not sure how PFF attributes targets/receptions/yards to players, but when looking at this same statistic from Sports Info Solutions (SIS), White gave up 41 catches for 359 yards in 2020.

After watching the tape, I find myself more aligned with the the SIS system as I definitely didn’t see 86 catches given up by the man. Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that PFF is worthless, but I will say that when people use their grades, they need to use them in context.

Regardless of the view that people may have in regards to White, it was pretty evident early on that he struggled mightily against the pass. When it comes to the running game, there is a more contentious debate to be had.

While White does flash against the run as seen by his tackles for loss and splash plays on the outside, there were some issues early on that may have contributed to the grade he received by PFF in the run defense department.

So, where did White struggle, and how did he overcome these struggles? Well, let’s dive in.

White in Coverage

So in 2019, we all knew that White had difficulties in coverage, but we all had the assumption that he would improve in this area before the 2020 season started.

Well, without an off-season due to COVID-19, it was really tough for second year players to improve from the mistakes they made in year one. For White, this was also true.

White was not all that great in coverage prior to the bye week in 2020. According to SIS, he only had five incompletions when targeted in the first 12 games. However, he was able to overcome some of these early struggles, which can be seen statistically through the additional five incompletions that he tallied when targeted in only three games post-bye (he missed Week 17 due to COVID).

From what I saw, the two biggest issues White had early on were his drop angle, and his tendency to fixate on the eyes of the quarterback and lose focus on the receivers in the area.

Here’s a look at a pretty typical drop angle from White that allowed quite a few easy completions over the middle on numerous occasions:

On this play, White takes a little too long to read pass which you can see by him taking a full step forward before beginning his drop. Once he does drop, he goes straight back and doesn’t go to the ball until he sees Brees let go of it.

Since this is Cover 3 (or at least looks to be) White’s area of responsibility is the middle/hook zone. Once he sees the receiver releasing to this area, he needs to be on top of it immediately, but isn’t here.

While this isn’t some drastic game-breaking completion, any offense would be happy to pick up four to six yards on every play. Additionally, this kind of easy completion can be mitigated through the proper drop.

What’s the proper drop? Well, something more like this:

On this play from Week 15, the Buccaneers also look to be in a Cover 3 look with one less curl/flat zone on Lavonte David’s side due to a blitz. On the opposite side, White is playing the same zone responsibility as the play above and handles this hook route perfectly.

Not only does he make the read more quickly here, he takes an angled drop to ensure that he is over the receiver by the time the ball is released. Once Matt Ryan lets go of it, White is right there to break on the ball and breakup the pass.

When it came to losing track of receivers in the area, the above two plays sort of show this. However, let’s dive even further into that by looking at this play from Week 9 against the Saints:

The Buccaneers look to be in a Cover 4 look with an extra cover guy dropping underneath, which leaves only a three man rush. White’s issue here, is that he loses track of Jared Cook (87) because he is so fixated on reading where Brees is looking.

He’s essentially giving Cook a free release to the inside, and since his momentum was going outside, he doesn’t have time to get back in the right position to breakup the pass. Even though this play ended up being a fumble, that doesn’t mean that this wasn’t a bad rep from White.

I am not sure if he thought that Cook was going outside, but he has to know that there is an extra defender to the outside who is responsible for anything coming into the hook/curl zone.

Now here’s a look from the NFC Championship game where White played this coverage perfectly:

The Bucs look to be running a pattern-match zone here, which is zone coverage with some man principles built in. White is playing his typical middle/hook zone but this time, he is hyper-aware of all of the receivers coming into his area.

When he makes his drop, he takes an angled approach again, which makes sense because there’s a receiver releasing to his inside. Once he sees that receiver cut outside, he sits and waits for another receiver to come into the area to cover.

This is the type of thing that was almost absent from White’s pass coverage in the beginning of the season. He would typically make the drop, focus on the quarterback’s eyes, and go wherever their eyes took him.

However, on this play he reads Aaron Rodgers (12), but is more so paying attention to where all of the receivers are. When Davante Adams (17) comes into his zone, he makes sure that he gives him a little push which slows down his route and gives the safeties time to come up and make the eventual play.

If you can see Rodgers’ process here, it looks like he attempts to go to Adams, but since White slowed down Adams’ route, he couldn’t go there immediately. Then he looks to Allen Lazard (13), but White is right behind him just waiting to breakup the pass, so he is forced to look back at Adams who is now being covered by Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams.

What looks like a seemingly simple play, ends up being more complicated when you slow it down and look at all the moving parts. If it weren’t for the way that White played this, this could’ve very well ended up a touchdown at the end of the NFC Championship game.

Seeing White play three different receivers on one play really gave me hope for his future in defending the pass. While this is something that can be quite commonplace when looking at seasoned veterans, seeing a second year player make these strides is quite encouraging.

His improvement in pass coverage was incredibly apparent during the playoffs, and especially the Super Bowl where he got to end the Chiefs hopes with “one last indignity” after intercepting Mahomes in the end zone.

White vs the Run

Many fans would claim that White is the best run-stopping linebacker in the NFL based on his splash plays and overall aggressiveness. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. However, he’s definitely not as poor as his PFF grade would indicate.

From what I saw, White is fantastic at shooting gaps against zone run schemes and either forcing the runner to bounce, or making the play in the backfield. However, he has struggled in reading the run and taking the proper angles, and is almost completely taken out of the play when a lineman gets a good handle on him.

Here’s a look at another play from the Bucs Week 9 blowout loss against the Saints:

Before I get into this play, I will note that I am not sure what the linebackers are supposed to be reading here. If they’re reading the flow of the line or the guards’ movements, then I can see how White took the wrong angle here. However, Lavonte David immediately reads counter and takes the right angle, which leads me to believe that White just read it wrong.

The issue with the bad read here isn’t the fact that it was a bad read, but rather that he was too aggressive in his commitment. What can be his greatest strength, can also sometimes be his greatest weakness, like we see here.

When he makes the read, he takes two to three shuffle steps in the wrong direction and then tries to get back into the play, but the tackle is right there to pick him up. If he were to be more patient here, he could’ve taken a read step, read the play, and then scraped to the outside to make the tackle, or at least could’ve forced the runner to bounce further outside.

In terms of his improvement in this area, it’s difficult to find a clear example because any correct read is going to be a sign of improvement, and after the bye I didn’t see a lot of these misreads. However, here’s a play that looks like it took him a little longer to read, but he remained patient and ended up making the play:

The reason that I think it took him longer to make the read is based on his multiple steps that he takes in once place. While David runs to the play-side immediately, White takes a few moments before he makes his move.

White remains patient, makes the correct read, sheds a block, and then ends up helping to make the play at the end of it. While the processing time can be improved, this is the sign of a player with controlled aggression and something to be excited about going forward.

Now let’s get into the whole issue of getting hung up on blocks. This one tends to be a bigger issue, mainly because White can be completely taken out of a play with a good enough block.

Here’s a look at that, again from the Week 9 game against the Saints:

On this particular play, White makes the read quickly and sets up to make the tackle if Alvin Kamara (41) decides to come through his gap. In order to do this though, he has to try to lessen the impact of the block from Erik McCoy (78).

His method of doing this here, is something that I saw him doing a lot prior to the bye week. He would often shoot for the outside shoulder, lock up, extend his arms, and try shed at the last second to make the tackle, sort of like a defensive lineman would.

Unfortunately for White, he’s not quite as large as a lineman and when he would try to shed blocks, he would just get frustrated like we see here.

But as the season wore on, White became quite adept at understanding this and really worked to change how he approached the block shedding area of his game (from what the tape looks like at least). If you’ll notice the play against the Falcons from the previous clip, he ends up dodging the blocker and making his way to the play.

Ultimately, this became quite a commonality and was seen quite often in the later regular season games and playoffs. Let’s take a look at that from the Saints game in the Divisional Round:

On this play, White makes the read quickly and attempts to shoot the gap to make the play. However, he isn’t really able to when Andrus Peat (75) flashes in front of him to make the block.

What we see from White here is much different from the approach he took above. Instead of shooting for the outside shoulder and attempting to extend his arms to shed the block once the ball carrier arrives, he tries to swipe Peat’s arms and essentially juke his way out of a block.

Even though White isn’t credited with the tackle here, he does a great job of not being taken out of the play and allowing a cutback lane like we see from the previous clip from Week 9.

Being a smaller, lighter, and faster linebacker, White’s greatest tool is his athleticism and he’s finally putting that to good use in the area of avoiding blocks. While he’s fantastic at scraping behind traffic and making a play, this is an area of his game that required improvement.

Conclusion

Despite the claims from a lot of national media members that Devin White is not a top tier linebacker (some would say one of the worst), it is very clear that that just isn’t the case. This was true even prior to his post-bye improvements, simply based on his play-making ability.

However, there were definitely some areas of his game that he needed to improve on, especially in defending the pass. No NFL team wants to use a top-five pick on a linebacker that can’t cover, and for a season and a half, it looked like the Buccaneers did just that.

Yet, based on what we saw from the last three games of his regular season and the postseason, it’s clear that White is poised to improve mightily in defending the pass for the 2021 season.

Against the run, White had some issues that were ultimately there because he was often too aggressive in his angles and because he got locked into blocks quite easily. However, he improved in this area just as much, if not more, than he did in the passing game.

When looking at the overall picture of the Bucs winning the Super Bowl in 2020, it must be noted that this is a team game and that the team itself improved as the season went on. However, when looking at how good White ended up at the end of the year, it’s hard to say that his personal growth wasn’t a contributing factor in the Bucs winning it all.

Poll

Who do you want to see next in the "Getting better to be the best" series?

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  • 33%
    Sean Murphy-Bunting
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  • 19%
    Chris Godwin
    (24 votes)
  • 27%
    Ronald Jones II
    (34 votes)
  • 16%
    Jordan Whitehead
    (20 votes)
  • 4%
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    (5 votes)
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