White's stellar play helps Buccaneers return to 1st place

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Devin White’s belief in himself and Tampa Bay’s potential to turn around its season never wavered.

Losing five times during a puzzling six-week stretch that followed a 2-0 start dropped the Buccaneers to 3-5 and searching for answers to a lot of questions approaching the season’s midpoint.

But none of them, coach Todd Bowles insisted, involved the effort level of White, the fourth-year linebacker whose production had slipped since being recognized as NFC defensive player of the month for September.

Among the critics of the 24-year-old’s play was Hall of Famer and former Tampa Bay star Warren Sapp, who spoke out via social media after a nationally televised loss to the Baltimore Ravens that saddled Tom Brady with his first three-game losing streak in 20 years.

Sapp didn’t like what he saw on a key third-down play in which White didn’t appear to pursue a receiver at full speed, going as far as to suggest the leader of the Bucs defense should have the captain’s “C” removed from his jersey.

Rather than engage in a public feud, White apologized to teammates and rebounded with back-to-back stellar performances in wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks that propelled the Bucs (5-5) atop the NFC South standings.

Bowles was not surprised.

“Great players understand that criticism comes with it when you’re not winning. And he’ll be the first to be hard on himself, so anything else he gets from the outside world probably doesn’t even affect him as much as he beats himself up,” the coach said.

“But he’s a pro. He’ll put his head down and go back to work. He’ll look at the little things,” Bowles added. “He’ll study tape and he’ll come back and work harder than he has to, and he’ll try to make it right. He’s been doing that the last two weeks, so we’re happy with him.”

Playing three days after the death of his father in Louisiana, White had nine tackles, three quarterback hits, two sacks and a forced fumble during last Sunday’s 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Munich.

He received word of his dad’s death while on the team bus headed to the airport in Florida.

“It was very hard to play, just a lot of emotions. I tried to turn them into good emotions and just keep a great spirit,” White said after the game.

“To get a call like that, it seemed unreal. I knew I had a job to do. I wasn’t going to accept no pats on the back,” the 2021 Pro Bowl selection said. “I just put my head down and kept going forward.”

In addition to creating the first turnover forced by the Tampa Bay defense in six weeks and finishing with the sixth multi-sack performance of his career, White was recognized again by the league for outstanding play — this time as NFC defensive player of the week.

“I kept it to myself. I’m a person that can just back myself in a corner and handle everything and figure it out later,” White said of coping with his father’s death.

“As the week got going and we had to continue to prepare for the Seahawks ... I leaned on being on the football field,” he added. “Being out there with my brothers that put everything at ease, at least when we were out there.”

The fourth-year pro is the only player in the league with 75 or more tackles along with five-plus sacks through 10 games. The pair of sacks he had last week gives him five this year and 20 for his career — most by an inside linebacker since he entered the league as the fifth overall pick of the 2019 draft.

The bye week arrived at a good time.

In addition to players getting some much-needed rest, Bowles and his coaching staff were afforded time to implement changes and get a head start on preparing to resume the schedule at Cleveland on Nov. 27.

With White back on top of his game, a defense that’s first in the league with 57 tackles for loss, tied for second with 32 sacks, third in fewest points allowed at 18 per game, and fifth in total defense (310 yards per game) appears poised to do its part helping Brady pursue another playoff berth.

“We try to get ready for Cleveland. ... You don’t go overboard with it,” Bowles said.

“You kind of space your days out some and try to look at every little thing and see things that we can try to do better the second half of the season,” the coach added. “You kind of lock in on it toward the end of the week and get started next week.”

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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press