TAMPA ― One day after it gave up the tying touchdown with 32 seconds left before losing to the Cleveland Browns in overtime, Bucs inside linebacker Devin White organized a dinner party for the entire defense.
The players had plenty to chew on.
After allowing a touchdown on the opening drive, the Bucs yielded only a field goal until the one-handed catch for a tying touchdown by Browns tight end David Njoku on fourth and 10 from the 12-yard line.
It’s been a recurring theme. Despite ranking sixth in the NFL in fewest points allowed (18.5 per game), the Bucs failed to hold onto a fourth-quarter lead in a loss to the Browns, allowed the Ravens to tack on points in the final quarter and let the Seahawks creep back into the game in Germany with 13 points in the fourth.
White and inside linebacker Lavonte David spoke first before the defense went around the table Monday at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in Tampa and aired some of their grievances.
White would like to see the defense get back to playing the way it did in a 19-3, season-opening win in Dallas, a game in which the Bucs shut out the Cowboys over the final three quarters.
“Me and Lavonte organized that just to bring the guys closer, just to be able to lean on one another and trust one another, just talk about the tenacity we’ve got to play with — you know, everything that we’ve got to do to help this team win,” White said. “Because at the end of the day we’ve got a great defense and we want to show it for four quarters and 60 minutes.”
White said he is trying to rebuild the closeness the defense had during the Super Bowl 55 season, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced players and coaches to spend more time at the facility eating and meeting.
“We used to be so much closer, because it was the COVID-19 year, because obviously we couldn’t go nowhere,” he said. “We had to sit at the facility, we had to eat here. Like, everything we did was together and once COVID kind of played out, we kind of got away from that, so it was just me and Lavonte just to try to bring the guys back in together. Let’s jell a little more so we’ll play even harder for each other.”
White has been the embodiment of the Bucs’ up-and-down performance on defense this season. He was criticized publicly for loafing on a play against the Ravens. He played well in a win over the Rams and was out-of-his-mind great in the victory over the Seahawks, with two sacks and a forced fumble.
David said last week that he and White always have been able to communicate and push one another.
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“We can say anything to each other, and we know it’s all constructive,” David said. “We’re supposed to be the best two linebackers playing in the game, so we have to be able to speak from the heart, and he can do the same with me.”
White said players at first kept the topic to football on Monday. It was a working dinner in that the Bucs believe better communication and holding each other accountable will create a greater sense of trust among the players and enable the defense to close out games and play at a higher level.
“Everybody went around the room and we said what we had to say about football,” White said. “It’s our job. This is what we want to do. This is what we lay our bodies on the line for, so we just wanted to have that come-together moment. We discussed it, and then we were able to enjoy everybody’s company right after we finished talking about football and just eat.”
Bucs co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote said coaches preach finishing games strong every day. But there were breakdowns Sunday. The Bucs overpursued and allowed a 28-yard breakout run by Browns running back Nick Chubb following the two-minute warning, giving Cleveland four shots to tie the game.
In overtime, receiver Amari Cooper put a double-move on cornerback Carlton Davis, who fell down. The result was a 46-yard gain to move the Browns within striking distance.
Tampa Bay has allowed 69 points in the fourth quarter this season, the most of any period.
“We want to finish. We want to hold them out of the end zone,” Foote said. “That’s our goal. We came up short last week, but we always talk about finishing. It always comes down to execution, communication. Games are won and lost in the fourth quarter by missed tackles or missed assignments.
“So, we just stay on those guys. Finish. Finish the game. And if you’re a defensive player, you want to be fulfilled and you want to win the game.”
That can be difficult when the offense is unable to build on a 17-10 lead over the final 1-1/2 quarters. The defense almost has to play perfect to win with so few points, and they came close to that on Sunday.
Even so, White says that’s the standard the defense has set for itself. Not all the problems will be fixed with one meal, but at least everything is out on the table.
“Just the goals we have for ourselves on defense, it entitles this type of stuff,” White said. “Whether (the Bucs offense) can score or they can’t score, we still want to be what we are. But (the Browns) scored 10 points on us the first quarter, and we held them out until the last drive.
“But we’ve got to be better, we’ve got to put ourselves in a better position. We’ve got to be real smarter at the end when it’s crunch time, and we’ve just got to keep doing that.”
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