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Carlton Davis is ready for Round 2
The last time the Bucs corner faced Tyreek Hill, it wasn't pretty. But as he explains to Go Long, Davis has never backed down from a challenge. Now, he may be the player who decides Super Bowl LV.
You know Patrick Mahomes. You know Tom Brady.
The headliners of Super Bowl LV are celebrities. Approximately 10 trillion words will be written about both over the coming days.
But right here is the player who may decide the Super Bowl because, right here, is the player with the bullseye on his jersey and, hell yeah, bring it on. Carlton Davis relishes all of this pressure. Because you know what? Carlton Davis is not going to flinch. Carlton Davis — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting cornerback — is going to hold that assassin’s scowl, stare directly through every receiver’s soul and fight at the line of scrimmage.
He knows what everybody saw the last time these two teams played. The Chiefs mercilessly targeted him. Before anyone could even blink, wideout Tyreek Hill scored three touchdowns. He flashed a peace sign after one TD, backflipped after another TD and, after the third, channeled his inner-Shannon Sharpe in telling Bucs fans “Help is on the way!”
This was about as embarrassing as a night gets for any professional athlete. Kansas City won, 27-24.
But dust off this nightmare of a memory over the phone for Davis — a memory that could prompt the corner to hang up STAT — and he is remarkably… poised. He doesn’t sigh. He doesn’t snipe back. He doesn’t make any excuses. He instead sounds like a man who cannot wait for the rematch.
Those highlights will play over and over all week leading up to the Super Bowl.
He does not care.
“I don’t look for it,” Davis says. “At my position, it’s the three-pointer. It’s like shooting a three. You live by the three or you die by the three. When you’re successful, it’s a big risk. If you’re playing press-man, you could lose at the line. Like 80 percent of the time, if you lose at the line, they’re probably going to complete the ball. The quarterback will probably complete that pass. But if you win at the line, you control the route, then it’s most likely you’re going to win that rep.
“I bet on myself. I trust myself and my technique. So, I’m going to keep doing me and keep being relentless.”
Because that’s how he’s built.
In this conversation with Go Long, Davis makes it abundantly clear he is a product of where he’s from — Miami Gardens, Fla. Growing up here just does something to you. Davis is also a product of who he idolized — Kobe Bryant. And everything he does, 24/7, feeds into a play-to-play, eat-or-be-eaten mentality at one of the toughest positions to play in sports: Cornerback. Covering Tyreek Hill sure seems like mission impossible. Cheetah has been disemboweling secondaries all season long. In the AFC Championship, the Buffalo Bills tried sitting back in coverage to eliminate the big play and Hill essentially laughed in their face. Hill tore them up for 172 yards on nine receptions. Give him any space at all and he’ll own you.
Get up in his grill, play “relentless,” and he might drop 269 yards on you, too, like he did vs. Tampa Bay.
But you also have a shot.
Play this brand of pass defense — press coverage with an edge, with attitude, with an expletive or 10 — and you can win. As a general rule of thumb vs. KC, you cannot try to win the decision. You must go for the knockout.
You must fight.
Carlton Davis is ready for Round 2.
“For sure,” he says. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be a good game. Just tune in.”
Many cornerbacks say they want to fight when, in truth, they’re being nothing more than blissful, bloviating caricatures of themselves. That is not Davis. There is substance to his words, his game.
He begins this conversation detailing an approach that’s ruthless in its simplicity.
“I play to dominate the game,” Davis says. “I play press man a lot. So, I’m a real hands-on guy. I’m big on winning my one-on-one matchups. I love getting up in somebody’s face and competing. I’m more of a competitor than I am anything else. I’m all about fighting. Dog against dog. Playing press man — to my tackling, my physicality, big hits — there’s not a lot of corners who play like me, who have the same physicality as a safety would. That’s a big edge for me but that’s just who I am.”
Granted, there is no such thing as a “shutdown cornerback” anymore, as Bucs legend Ronde Barber explained to Go Long last week. While we all perpetuate “the myth” of such specimens, Barber pointed out that even the greats like Jalen Ramsey and Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson aren’t eliminating receivers mano a mano. They play zone. They play the ball. And, no, that’s not a knock. That’s the reality of being an elite starting corner in 2020.
But Davis is as close as you’ll find to a corner who lives on the island, a corner who’ll get into a receiver’s face.
Quarterbacks throw at him. Often.
He’s up to the task, often, too. Davis leads the NFL with 37 forced incompletions since 2019, per PFF.
These Buccaneers sure do employ a high-risk, high-reward scheme. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles wants to pressure the quarterback and he trusts his corners to hang on for dear life.
It remains to be seen exactly how Bowles attacks the Chiefs this time around but those who have faced Tyreek Hill insist that a menace like Carlton Davis actually is your best shot at stopping the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder because you absolutely need that physicality. You cannot run and you cannot hide from the Cheetah. One AFC cornerback who has faced Hill multiple times — but doesn’t want his identity revealed because he doesn’t want Hill to know what’s coming in their future duels — says you must play man-to-man against the Chiefs and blitz. There’s “no other way,” he stresses, because Mahomes and Hill and tight end Travis Kelce devour zone like an All You Can Eat Buffet. And this vet believes Davis does have a shot at flustering Hill, too, because when you attack… and attack… and attack him, the physicality has a cumulative effect.
Harass Hill all game and he’ll want no part of it. Punch and punch and punch and he’ll get a little wobbly in the ring.
Says this AFC corner: “Never back down because if you get him a couple times, he will tap out.”
The key, this time, is giving Davis more safety help so he can be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. My podcast partner, longtime personnel exec Jim Monos, made this point out of the AFC title game, too. Monos believes your only shot vs. Hill is to go down swinging. As for Davis himself, he isn’t about to broadcast the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl gameplan but he does say they’ll need to constantly change up the X’s and O’s defensively.
“If you do a good job of showing them different looks,” Davis says, “and playing different things and just keeping the coverage top-down, you’ll have a good shot.”
He likes his chances, too, because of his upbringing. Because of how he’s wired.
Mom was a correctional officer in Fort Lauderdale and Dad served in the Navy which meant, yes, this was a disciplined household.
While Mom saw a lot of bad dudes in the jailhouse, it’s not like she needed to share all of the nitty-gritty details with Davis because Davis saw enough himself right in his own neighborhood. In fact, he grew up in the same area as the player we profiled last week, Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie. He knows McKenzie well and echoes what the receiver says about Miami Gardens.
Here, a Hail Mary’s toss from the Dolphins’ stadium, you’re going to witness the thin line between life and death.
Says Davis: “Gang violence. Fights. Crazy stuff happening. Childhood friends dying. It made me want more — want more for myself.”
In the background of this call, you can hear Davis’ dog bark and bark and bark when he spots another dog outside. He has a miniature golden doodle.
In other words: Davis stayed on the right path. He escaped this all.
He got into a few fights growing up, but not much. Davis was always well-respected by his peers, by superiors, by everyone and he always knew how to “maneuver” in this neighborhood. True, he still had the same level of stress as everyone else around here. (How could you not when your friends are dying?) But he never lived recklessly because he used football as his ultimate release. And at Norland (Fla.) High School, Davis became a star recruit, totaling 50 tackles and six interceptions his senior year. After initially committing to Ohio State, he switched it up to Auburn where he battled elite receivers in the SEC every Saturday and was drafted by the Buccaneers in 2018 with the 63rd overall pick.
“It’s just how you deal with it,” Davis says. “You still feel the same pain everybody else feels. I just wasn’t lashing out on people. I was channeling that energy to football — and trying to get out.”
The cornerback position is perfect for someone from Miami Gardens, too.
Those who know Davis best were not surprised to see him go directly at Michael Thomas. After the Buccaneers eliminated the New Orleans Saints in the NFC divisional round, Davis called Thomas “slant boy.” Thomas responded during the NFC Championship Game when Davis was beat for a touchdown on a slant, and then again to say Davis needed help.
The Bucs knocked the Packers off to advance to the Super Bowl. Davis checked his phone.
Davis fired back. Davis couldn’t let this fake news metastasize.
He then added a photoshopped picture of Thomas that was sent to him.
Says Davis: “I saw it and he got me F’ed up. I’m not that guy. So I just had to let him know real quick. I don’t do the back-and-forth stuff on Twitter but I just had to make an exception that one time.”
That’s who he is. For a brief moment, Davis just let the world in. Former Auburn wide receiver Ryan Davis — no relation, but one of Carlton’s best friends — promises that this is the real Carlton Davis “every day of the week.” Everything Carlton’s ever gotten in life, he adds, “he’s earned.” He fights and claws for every inch. So when you’re wired this way, no, you cannot let one comment from one wide receiver eliminated from the postseason slide.
“Carlton’s the type of person who’s not going to go for anything — no type of disrespect,” says Ryan Davis, who had 178 receptions for 1,555 yards with seven touchdowns his last three years at Auburn. “He’s a stand-up dude. He’s about his business. He’ll handle his. He ain’t going to let anybody just step at him in any type of way. A lot of players, they’re not used to that. That’s Carlton. He has that chip on his shoulder. That’s what drives him. That’s what keeps him going.”
He’d know. Their battles during practice were epic.
One-on-one’s every day at Auburn — Davis vs. Davis — were war. They pushed each other all the time.
“We just knew we had the confidence,” Ryan Davis says, “to go kill anybody who’s in front of us.”
They shared the same mentality and then took this mentality into the cutthroat SEC. Ryan Davis still remembers Carlton Davis shoving a player for Georgia out of bounds… right into a cooler. (“That’s the dog coming out of him!”) Don’t get him wrong. He makes a point to say his friend is chill and laidback but something just changes when the lights come on.
That Miami in Carlton Davis bubbles to the surface.
That’s the best way Carlton can explain why he never will back down.
“Miami guys are just different,” he says. “Like you were talking to Isaiah, we just grew up different. You don’t ever back down. And football is a very competitive sport — in Miami it’s a religion. That’s all we do: Play football. As far as competing the best on the best, South Florida has some of the best football this world has ever seen. Football is nature for us. So going up against guys and talking crap, we’ve been doing that since we were small. Guys like Dalvin Cook, Teddy Bridgewater. The list is so long. We’re used to going up against guys who are good. It’s nothing.”
He remembers playing Pop Warner games for the “Miami Gardens Chargers” in front of 2,000-plus people. Like Marquise Brown, he vividly recalls adults everywhere gambling big money on these games played between eight- and nine-year-olds, too. Now, he’s on the verge of playing in the damn Super Bowl against the defending champions. Here comes Tyreek Hill. Here comes Patrick Mahomes. Alllllll of the pressure in the world will be on him… but Carlton Davis is not exactly shaking in his boots because of this foundation.
This is all he’s ever known.
Everyone who’s from South Florida remembers how it all began.
“The atmosphere is crazy,” he says. “The stands are jumping. The parking is full. We’re really used to being in that spotlight. In South Florida, it’s big-time football.”
Still, we’ve seen countless proud, talented players fry in the Super Bowl glow before. Even Hall of Famers choke when the pressure is cranked this high. And it’s not hard to do the math here, right? Hill embarrassed Davis two months ago so most expect Hill to embarrass Davis again.
Here’s the thing: Davis does not give a damn. Davis could not care less what’s said about him all week.
The spotlight’s never blinded him.
“People always have their own opinion,” Davis says. “You can’t live your life to try to please people. Live your life for yourself.
“I’m my biggest critic. I’m going to face myself before I face anybody else. As long as I can face myself, I really don’t care what people say or do. I don’t live my life to please other people.”
Playing cornerback, to Carlton Davis, is 60 percent physical and 40 percent mental.
He pours himself into this craft, no question.
As Davis starts explaining that 60 percent — the day-to-day routine of film work, technique, recovery, etc. — he stops to ask, “Are you sure you want to hear all this?” because he’s not sure anybody wants to waste their time reading about a process that’s so nuanced. He studies some of the best cornerbacks ever and believes, yes, there is a way to play violently in this era. It may seem impossible to press receivers but Davis sees a needle to thread. To him, it’s crucial to drill it all offseason so each step, each hand placement, each swivel of his hips is synchronized perfectly.
The job must become pure muscle memory, he says.
“Once you put that work in,” Davis says, “you’re able to do anything. Honestly.”
His friend, Ryan Davis, is a bit more exasperated. As he points out, at least in college a cornerback can spar with a receiver until the ball’s in the air. In the NFL? Most officiating crews won’t let you touch a guy after five yards. The receivers are a hell of a lot faster, quicker and more explosive, too. It’s a miracle any cornerback can have any measure of success against a guy like Tyreek Hill.
“I salute him for what he does!” Ryan Davis says. “The rules are so against the DB. That’s a hard task for anybody to have that mental capacity for 20-plus weeks. I know playing that position, a lot of people want to ridicule and critique it. But not everybody can get up out of bed and do what’s asked of them.”
Carlton isn’t concerned about this 60 percent, no, and he knows just how crucial that other 40 percent is. Especially in a matchup like this one.
Amnesia is a necessity.
And in that loss to KC, it sure looked like Davis let mistakes compound. Cameras captured the demoralized cornerback slouched over on the bench, alone, after one touchdown. But he knows that’s not him because he does not fear failure. If Davis is burnt on a route, he’s not going to cower the next time out. He’s going to attack. He’s going to play like Kobe Bryant did the rest of his career after all those airballs against the Utah Jazz. No miss at any buzzer prevented Kobe from gunning that 3-pointer the next night with everything on the line.
You bet Bryant’s death one year ago shook Davis. He has idolized the Los Angeles Lakers legend since he can remember. So, in 2020, Davis changed his jersey number from No. 33 to No. 24.
Initially, Kobe ran through his mind in that new 2-4. Now? That mentality is part of him.
“He really molded my game — how I attacked the game of football,” Davis says. “His relentlessness. He never backed down from anybody. And that’s why I am who I am on the field now. He didn’t care about who he faced. He didn’t care what the circumstances were or what he had to do. He was just trying to get the job done. And he was always the Mamba, man. And so powerful with it. He’d strike.”
Not surprisingly, Davis lifted himself up off the canvas after that brutal game against Hill to finish the season with 68 tackles (52 solo), four interceptions and 18 passes defensed. Ryan Davis fully expects him to be aggressive in the Super Bowl.
That’s what Kobe would do.
“You have to face it,” Ryan Davis says. “And Carlton is going to face anything and everything that ever comes his way. It goes back to his mentality and being on that island with all that pressure on you. Sometimes, you can be on an island with no safety help. Kobe had that same mentality.
“I know he is definitely motivated. It’s the Super Bowl. It’s one game left. Everybody is going to go balls out. There’s not too much to say. Everybody knows what’s at stake — legacy.”
So, it’s pretty simple: If Carlton Davis draws Hill again and stops him this time, the Buccaneers are Super Bowl Champions.
This is the greatest challenge of his football life.
We all saw how pissed Davis was when Michael Thomas took a few shots on Twitter so you cannot help but wonder what Davis is thinking when he rewatches that Bucs-Chiefs film, when he sees Hill flashing that peace sign and backflipping and mocking the home crowd.
How hungry exactly is he to see Hill again?
He keeps it short and sweet.
“It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait. I can’t wait.”