Many football fans had never heard the name “Lavonte David” before he illegally shoved a scrambling Geno Smith out of bounds with seven seconds left in Week 1’s two point loss to the New York Jets.
Those who didn’t know him before now know him strictly for this specific calamity, which is both unfair and, unfortunately, realistic.
Davis is the starting/only weakside linebacker on Tampa Bay’s depth chart. Selected with the 58th overall pick in the 2012 draft, he’s 23 years old, and this past Sunday was the 18th start of his career.
He’s also very, very good, and a defensive anchor who should soon enough be known for so much more than a foolish mistake towards the end of a hollow game.
Last year, in his rookie season, David logged 112 total tackles. According to ESPN, that was good enough for second highest in the NFL, trailing only St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis, who had 117. David’s 139 combined tackles tied him for eighth with Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny and Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher.
That year he picked off one pass and sacked a quarterback twice. Through two games this season, David already has his one interception, but even more impressive, he has 2.5 sacks.
(To briefly recap: David has more sacks in two weeks this season than in 16 starts last year. He also has more sacks this season than DeMarcus Ware, Elvis Dumervil, J.J. Watt, and Jared Allen. Moving on.)
In Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints, David played like an All-Pro in all phases of his position: rushing the passer, defending the run and locking down his assignment/area in coverage.
On a crucial fourth and goal with 21 second remaining in the half, David burrowed into the backfield, shed a block (where he was also held), and somehow managed to wrap up Saints running back Mark Ingram from behind, halting his progress and stopping a touchdown.
Going back to that costly play against the Jets, what we knew about David, as he chased down Smith at a perfect angle from the other side of the field, is that he’s very fast for a linebacker. What we couldn’t take away from that one play was that he’s also quite intelligent.
While rushing Drew Brees on Sunday he was disciplined and never left his feet on the pump fakes that have fooled so many others before. He put this on display for one particular rush that forced an incomplete pass in Jimmy Graham’s direction.
David is also strong and relentless. On a 3rd and 12 with 8:44 left in the third quarter, and New Orleans threatening to score at Tampa Bay’s 17 yard line, David came on a thunderous blitz from the weak side.
Saints running back Darren Sproles (all 5’6”, 190 pounds of him) slid over to block David’s rush, but was temporarily transformed into a house kitten trying to protect his owner from a charging Brown bear.
Like most linebackers, defending the run is clearly David’s greatest strength right now, and an area where he’s already an elite force. Escaping from an unblocked Lavonte David is arguably more difficult than avoiding the sun on a mid-July trip to the beach. He covers that much ground, flying from sideline to sideline with calculated timing and precision.
Against New Orleans, David showed he couldn’t be blocked by a halfback, as his second sack came after he bull-rushed a feeble Pierre Thomas. In passing situations when he wasn’t asked to decapitate Brees, David spent the afternoon shadowing Sproles out of the backfield.
Perhaps no linebacker in the league can do this without help (David received his fair share of it), but David managed to keep the slippery Sproles in his grasp, limiting him to zero game-breaking plays. (David also broke up one pass attempt to Graham, but Dashon Goldson drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for crashing into the Saints All-Universe tight end with his helmet at the play’s conclusion.)
Despite opening up his second professional season with two straight fantastic performances in what’s shaping up to be a long, successful career, Lavonte David is still best known for one ruinous mistake.
If he stays on the track he’s set for himself, however, his name will soon be more synonymous with his seriously impressive overall play.