TAMPA — Judging by what he'd heard from other players around the league and seen on the little bit of game tape he'd watched, Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis thought he'd be playing behind a pretty good group of linebackers this year.
It wasn't until Revis and those linebackers started playing games together two weeks ago that the four-time Pro Bowler realized just how good the trio of Mason Foster, Lavonte David and Dekoda Watson really are.
That group has fueled an early-season defensive resurgence that has made the Bucs one of the stingiest teams in the league. And Revis says the linebackers are playing at a level well beyond their years of experience.
“These guys, even though they're young, they're playing like they're seven- and eight-year veterans,'' Revis said. “And that's good. I really appreciate what they're doing for us.''
David, a second-year weakside linebacker, leads the Bucs with 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and three tackles for loss. Foster, a third-year middle backer, ranks third on the team with 15 tackles and has two sacks and an 85-yard interception returned for a touchdown. Watson, a fourth-year pro and first-year starter at the strongside linebacker spot, has five tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one interception.
“They've been playing lights out,'' Revis said. “You've got Mason brining that ball back last week (for a touchdown against the Saints), and Dekoda is playing well. And then there's Lavonte.
“I'm telling you, if Lavonte doesn't get a Pro Bowl nod this year, then something is going on. The voting must be rigged or something. I know that's a whole other subject, but that's a word and I'm allowed to use that word.''
The Bucs' passing attack has not been very balanced. WR Vincent Jackson has a team-leading 12 catches, the same amount as the team's other five pass-catchers combined. There's a reason for that, of course, and even the Bucs are a bit surprised by it.
It turns out the Jets and Saints spent a lot of time double-covering WR Mike Williams, while leaving Jackson in single coverage. That's one reason Williams has caught just six balls so far, but the lack of a bona fide option at tight end and slot receiver has forced QB Josh Freeman's hands, as well.
“We probably would be well served if we could have another guy involved more,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of making more use of tight ends and slot receivers. “But I don't think it's for a lack of trying to be balanced.”
Some of the blame falls on the Bucs, particularly the receivers, several of whom have failed to catch catchable passes.
“We've thrown some to the other guys and they just haven't caught it,'' Schiano said. “We need to catch the ball all of the time — consistently. And I don't mean the uncatchable ones, I mean the catchable ones.”
Like a rock
Freeman completed just nine of his 22 passes against New Orleans last week, only the second single-digit completion game of his career. The other came in his first game, against New England in 2009, in which he entered late and threw only four passes.
Freeman, however, remains confident.
“I'm as confident as I've ever been,'' Freeman said Thursday. “And I'm as comfortable with the offense as I've ever been. I've got extremely talented guys around me, so we're just going to keep plugging away and then go out there on Sunday and make it happen.''
The NFL continues to collect money from Bucs defenders. In addition to fining S Dashon Goldson $100,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints RB Darren Sproles, the league fined fellow S Ahmad Black $21,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints TE Jimmy Graham.
Black said avoiding such hits is proving to be far more difficult than the players realized, but admitted they have little choice in the matter.
“We've been playing football like this for a number of years now and to just change all of a sudden is tough,'' Black said. “But it's something we have to do. In order to keep that checkbook heavy, it's something we have to do.''
Sproles watched replays of Goldson's hit on him and and told reporters in New Orleans that Goldson has a history of delivering “dirty” hits, adding, “He tried to hurt me on the play, but he didn't.”
Goldson was initially suspended for a game, but was reinstated on appeal.