The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have what the New Orleans Saints need.
Lavonte David has become one of the NFL’s best weakside linebackers, a tackling machine who sets himself apart by what he can do when he’s asked to drop into coverage. David has three interceptions this season, but it’s the range of things he can do, from covering a running back in the flats to dropping 20 yards downfield to take away the seam, that make him so valuable.
New Orleans, on the other hand, has seen six different players handle significant snaps at the position. When veteran Dannell Ellerbe is healthy, he’s exactly what the Saints defense needed — a rangy, active linebacker capable of limiting yards after catches made by running backs and tight ends, sometimes erasing those options for opposing quarterbacks.
But Ellerbe has played in only four games.
“With Dannell, of course you’re wanting him to be healthy,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “When he has been on the field, it’s been a big difference for us defensively, and yet he battled the toe and kind of the sports hernia. I’m optimistic this week, and he will be able to get some work today, I think, and hopefully he can be out there and play this weekend because he is an explosive player.”
In Ellerbe’s absence, opponents have sliced and diced the Saints underneath. Tight ends have caught 76 passes for 1,016 yards and 10 touchdowns against the Saints; New Orleans has also given up 715 receiving yards to running backs.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has limited tight ends to 9.3 yards per catch — the third-lowest mark in the league — and running backs to 435 receiving yards.
David, along with rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, have played a big role.
“We value linebackers that can cover quite a bit,” Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said. “The day of Iso linebackers (pluggers built to play the run) is over. You are looking for a guy that can line up in man coverage versus tight ends or running backs.”
Smith has been around plenty in his coaching career. Brought up in Tony Dungy’s “Tampa Two,” Smith coached Derrick Brooks, the Hall of Fame prototype for the modern 4-3 weakside linebacker position. In Chicago, Smith had Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Now, Smith has David.
“If we wanted to make Lavonte primarily a rush linebacker, he’d be one of the best of doing that,” Smith said. “Of course, great coverage skills. ... I have seen a lot of good linebackers, and he is definitely one of the best around. He can tackle and he can do it all. Everything that you are looking for in a great linebacker, he can do.”
New Orleans has spent an entire season looking for somebody who can handle those responsibilities when Ellerbe cannot go.
David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, Michael Mauti and Jo-Lonn Dunbar all got chances at the role. Last week, looking for a spark, the Saints turned to veteran James Anderson, who responded with a team-high 11 tackles against Carolina.
“We felt like James, last week, had a pretty good week of work,” Payton said. “He was able to handle snaps both in the base and (sub-packages), and part of that was just production and wanting to see how he would handle it, and I think he will receive some of the snaps and work this week.”
But Ellerbe, who could return this week, is the prototype.
Injuries, beginning with a turf toe in the preseason and extending to a groin injury against Indianapolis, have kept the veteran off the field.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Ellerbe said. “After being out last year, I definitely wanted this to be a comeback year, just to get back and have fun and help the team.”
A reeling defense hopes Ellerbe can return this week against the Buccaneers.
Ellerbe is hopeful. He was close to returning against Carolina; one more week might be the ticket.
“I’m trying to get to a point where I’m confident in it, and I can do what I need to do when I’m on the field. I just don’t want to go out there just to be out there and hurt the team.”
If he can get back to the form he showed earlier, Ellerbe might be able to provide some of the assets David gives the Bucs every week.