As he neared the sideline during his trot off the field late Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David slowed to a walk and quickly saluted what remained of a sun-baked Raymond James Stadium crowd.
Many in the small gathering of fans that stuck around to the end of a picture-postcard-like day saluted David right back. But if David keeps turning in seasons like the one he’s having this year, it won’t just be the Bucs fans that salute him.
During a 27-6 victory over the Bills in which the Bucs recorded seven sacks and matched a season high by forcing five takeaways, David continued to make a powerful bid for his first Pro Bowl berth by adding nine tackles, two interceptions and a sack to a resume that now ranks as one of the most impressive in NFL history.
With six sacks and five interceptions on the year, David has become the first linebacker in NFL history — and only the fourth player overall — to have at least six sacks and five interceptions in the same season. He joined safety Dave Duerson (1986), cornerback Shawn Springs (2004) and safety Rodney Harrison (2000).
“He’s a beast,” Bucs safety Dashon Goldson said of David, who is in his second year out of Nebraska. “He’s one of the best impact players on defense in this league, and he’s overlooked a lot. But if he keeps playing the way he has been, he’ll get on the map sooner or later.”
David was all over the map on Sunday. He blitzed through the Buffalo line for a sack of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel early in the first quarter, fell back deep into coverage for am interception of Manuel early in the second and floated into the flat for a second pick of Manuel late in the fourth.
But Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis, who delivered the bone-crunching, fourth-quarter hit that made receiver Robert Woods cough up the ball David grabbed for his team-leading fifth interception, will tell you that ability to be everywhere is why David has become such an impact player.
“When you pop in the film and watch our defense, Lavonte David is all over the field,” Revis said. “He goes from sideline to sideline. In rush defense, he’s there. In pass defense, he’s there. He’s everywhere. And right now, I think he’s the best linebacker in the league.”
David almost blushes at such suggestions. He’s a shy, quiet kid who worked his way through junior college to get to his shot at Nebraska, where he was an All-American but never quite played at the level he is now.
During his two years with the Cornhuskers, David started all 27 games he played and recorded 285 tackles and 11.5 sacks, but had only two interceptions. He didn’t show a great propensity for picks a year ago, either, intercepting just one pass as a rookie.
He’s been nothing short of a ball hawk this year.
David credits the change largely to film study, a better feel for his role in the Bucs’ defense and a series of drills the coaches have implemented during practices.
One of those, which Bucs coach Greg Schiano referred to Sunday as a high-school drill, requires defenders to catch balls tipped in the air by a receiver. David said he might not have secured his first pick on Sunday without it.
“It was a direct replica of that drill,” David said of the interception he made after Bills receiver Steve Johnson tipped a Manuel pass high into the air. “It was just like practice.”
David isn’t the only one praising the impact of those practice drills. Schiano, who has now guided the Bucs to four wins in five weeks after an 0-8 start, said the emphasis the team has placed on taking the ball away in practice is now showing up on Sundays.
“That stuff is really paying off for the guys,” said Schiano, whose team also got interceptions from rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second quarter and middle linebacker Mason Foster in the third to give it an NFL-best 21 for the season.
The Bucs’ fifth takeaway of the day, which matched the number they had at Detroit two weeks ago, was a fumble recovery that came midway through the second quarter when Goldson fell on a muffed punt at the Bills 21.
The Bucs offense, however, did little to capitalize on the takeaways, either giving the ball away itself or punting after three of them. Even on the two occasions when the Bucs did make something of their takeaways, they settled for field goals, Rian Lindell salvaging the opportunities with kicks of 53 and 32 yards.
Still, it was the Bucs’ offense that set the tone for the game as running back Bobby Rainey broke through a hole on the left side of the line and ran 80 yards for a touchdown on the second play from scrimmage. The longest run in franchise history was also the team’s quickest touchdown ever, giving Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead 18 seconds into the game.
The Bills responded two possessions later with a field goal to cut the Bucs lead to 7-3, but Tampa Bay came back with another touchdown on a wobbly 38-yard pass from Mike Glennon to Vincent Jackson.
Glennon, who had been the one constant in an attack that has struggled to run the ball in recent weeks, almost dragged his team down Sunday, throwing two interceptions for the first time since he made his NFL debut nine weeks ago.
It was also the second straight two-turnover day for Glennon, who completed just nine of 25 passes for 90 yards, but also threw for two scores, including a 5-yard strike to Tim Wright for a 24-3 halftime lead.
“Some of those balls I would like to have back,” Glennon said. “But to get that first big run and to only give up one sack to the No. 1 team in the league (in sacks), that was really important.”
In fact, Tampa Bay turned the tables, sacking Manuel seven times for losses of 37 yards. It marked the first time the Bucs had seven sacks in a game since December 2004.
“I just think we’re playing really good football right now, and it really all starts with our defense and with how many turnovers they’re forcing,” Glennon said. “We did what we needed to do on offense, and they took care of the rest.”