SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Lavonte Is Back For The Bucs
“He’s back!” said Bucs middle linebacker Kwon Alexander following Tampa Bay’s 29-7 opening win against Chicago. “Lavonte David is back!”
David led the Bucs with nine tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery against the Bears, picking up where he left off from last year when he had six tackles, a tackle for loss and two sacks the last time he stepped foot in Raymond James Stadium for a regular season game in a 17-16 win over Carolina.
“Yes, I do see that,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith. “I thought that Lavonte probably from Game One to Game 16 improved. I said this earlier on that I don’t know that he was 100 percent healthy. He had some nagging injuries that he was dealing with. He looks much quicker, more decisive all through training camp and through the first game of the season. He has a good feel for playing defensive football and he’s done a good job for us. He is a guy that through the last quarter of the season last year probably led our team in splash plays and he did a nice job coming downhill the other day.”
David is indeed back. He’s back to his playmaking ways.
David is back to the player that was leading the Bucs in tackles every year from 2012-2015 when he made the All-Pro team in 2013 and the Pro Bowl in 2015.
But did he really ever go away?
Statistically, you could make that argument as David’s tackle numbers improved each year he has been in the league from 139 as a rookie to 145 the next year to 146 in 2014 and 147 the following season. In his first year in Smith’s defense David recorded only 87 tackles in 16 games – 60 fewer from his Pro Bowl season in 2015.
In the second game of the 2016 campaign David failed to record a tackle – or any statistic – for the first time in his NFL career in a 40-7 loss at Arizona. David only recorded five or fewer stops in eight of the Bucs’ 16 games last year, which was unusual.
Late last season Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter was asked about David’s statistical slide.
“I’m not sure. You guys have had plenty of speculation yourselves on that and I’m not sure why, but in my eyes, I’m seeing the guy out there that made the Pro Bowl before that.”
Smith noted that Kwon Alexander’s team-high 145 tackles had something to do with it. While plays were funneled to the WILL (weakside) linebacker position in Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith’s defenses, oftentimes the MIKE (middle) linebacker is the free tackler in Mike Smith’s scheme.
“Well, they are different schemes and the WILL linebacker in the scheme that he played in, it was set up for him to be a tackler and make lots of plays,” Smith said last year. “It is somewhat different. I do believe this: I believe we all know that we can coach better and we can play better, but in terms of Lavonte, he’s been nicked up a little bit.
“Sometimes you can’t go strictly on statistics, the number of tackles, the number of assists. Sometimes you have to be in a – what we call and Dirk uses the term – you’ve got to be an ‘assist man’ on the play. You’ve got to be in your gap and you may not be able to make the play, but you’re going to put someone else in position to make it. And he’s made some, what I call, ‘game-changing plays.’ That was a game-changing play in the ball game [against Seattle], in terms of knocking the ball out, picking it up and running. Of course, we’d all like to see him score. He took a little ribbing there, but I think that’s natural, but those are the things that he’s been able to do for us and he’s like anybody. This time of the year, we’re all banged up and earlier in the season he was playing banged up and playing with some injuries, but he’s an integral part of what we’re trying to get done and will be for a long time.”
While David failed to record 100 tackles for the first time in his five-year NFL career, he did have five sacks, a team-leading four forced fumbles, four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, in addition to a key interception returned for a touchdown in a 28-21 win at San Diego. David’s 17 tackles for loss were tied for the most in the league.
That was good enough for David to be a Pro Bowl alternate and a second-team All-Pro last season.
“I don’t think he’s not the same player that he was last year – I think he is,” Smith said last year. “I think we’ve got to do a better job as a coaching staff, putting him in positions to make plays. I think he’s a very good player. He’s a Pro Bowl player in the past. His numbers don’t show that at this point and time in the season, but he’s doing everything that we’re asking and we’ve got to make sure that we put him in some positions where he can go make some plays.”
David did that down the stretch with a key forced fumble in a 14-5 win against Seattle, his pick-six the next week at San Diego and recording four sacks in the final three games of the year while racking up 22 tackles in that trio of games.
There were times last year when Koetter was downright annoyed with the media talk of David having a down year statistically.
“Different guys play a little bit different every week – we’re not complaining one bit about Lavonte David,” Koetter said. “So, I don’t know where it’s coming from, it’s all numbers-based. I don’t really look at it that way, I just look at it, if the guy’s trying to play our defense, he’s one of our leaders, he’s one of our captains, so I think Lavonte is playing fine.”
David admits that it took him a while to learn Smith’s new defense and become comfortable with a different role for the WILL linebacker in this scheme.
“When you look back and if you could have a camera in our meeting room last year, it was crazy,” David said. “Everybody had the big eyes when we were installing, but now it’s totally different. Everybody’s talking, the whole room is communicating from the D-line to the secondary to the linebackers, and that’s amazing. Coach Smith is getting really excited about that. So, that’s really cool to see and also it translating over on the field when we’re doing walkthroughs and things like that. Guys are talking, guys are knowing what each other’s supposed to be doing, so that’s a real cool thing. It kind of picked up towards the end of the season, but we wanted to start fast at the beginning and now we have the opportunity to do so.”
With nine tackles, which matched his season high from a year ago against Dallas, David got off to the fastest start of his Buccaneers teammates – although it should be noted that Alexander left Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury after the first quarter and finished with just one tackle and one interception.
“I was sad being over there on the sidelines and I couldn’t turn up with him, but when I get back this week we’re going to get right back to it,” Alexander said. “We’re the best linebacker duo in the league.”
The key to David having a hot start to the season dates back to his sensational training camp and preseason.
“The guy that’s quietly having a tremendous camp is Lavonte David,” Koetter said back in August. “Lavonte didn’t have his best year he has ever had last year. He is really having a good camp right now. I think the fans will be able to see it when we start playing.”
David recorded a sack in the preseason against Jacksonville and is slated for more blitzes this year.
“He does do a good job,” Koetter said. “He is a lot better blitzer than maybe he is given credit for.”
Smith agrees and plans to use him more as a blitzer this season.
“Lavonte, I think, at the end of the year really came on as a pass rusher,” Smith said. “He became more effective as a pass rusher, we were able to design some things to allow him to get in a charge and rush the passer. I just think the overall knowledge of our defense is the thing that we’ve got to get better at across the board. I think we are light years ahead of where we were last year at this time.”
Believe it or not, David has 18 sacks in his Tampa Bay career, which ranks him second all-time for Buccaneers linebackers ahead of Derrick Brooks (13.5) and Shelton Quarles (13), and trailing only Broderick Thomas, who had 26.5 sacks from 1989-93.
David is the only player in NFL history to record at least 450 tackles, at least 15 sacks and at least 10 interceptions in his first five seasons. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, David is one of only six NFL players in league history to post at least 15 sacks and 10 interceptions in his first five seasons and the latest to do so since William Thomas (1991-95). Since entering the league as the Bucs’ second-round pick in 2012, David ranks second in the NFL in solo tackles (480), second in total tackles (673), second in tackles for loss (86), tied for second in interceptions by a linebacker (10) and third in passes defensed by a linebacker (35).
Heading into his sixth NFL season, David is still well ahead of the pace set by Bucs Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks, who is widely regarded as the best player in Tampa Bay history. Through his first five years in the league, Brooks recorded 663 tackles, 51 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles, eight interceptions, 4.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries. In David’s first five years he has posted 673 tackles, 36 pass breakups, 18 sacks, 12 forced fumbles, 10 interceptions, seven fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
That’s 10 more tackles, 13.5 more sacks, four more forced fumbles, four more fumble recoveries, two more interceptions and two more defensive touchdowns for David.
Despite the amazing start to his NFL career, David admits that he had a down year last season and that 2016 wasn’t up to his standards.
“Last year I didn’t have my best year, so I just want to be able to get better and get back to my old self,” David said.
It’s so far, so good for the former Nebraska standout. David said that linebackers coach Mark Duffner made two videos for him to watch in the offseason. One was a highlight reel showing David all the splash plays he’s capable of making. The other was a lowlight reel, showing all of the mistakes he made and the plays he left out on the field.
Needless to say it was an eye-opener and served as motivation for the Bucs defensive captain.
“It’s what I needed, to be honest,” David said. “Since I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever had that. So, when I saw that, I really think it helped me out a lot. We got a chance to sit down with Coach Duffner and talk about things good, bad and what could be better. You kind of see the big picture doing it, too. It kind of helps you learn defense as well, what can be better, what you did good on this play and what you did bad on a certain play. Then they have lows – they have missed tackles, they have a whole bunch of things. There’s a lot of stuff to put in your bag of things to get better at.”
David played a huge role in helping Tampa Bay’s defense force three takeaways and hold Chicago’s potent backfield of Jordan Howard, the league’s second-leading rusher last year, and electrifying rookie Tarik Cohen to just 20 yards rushing on 16 carries in Sunday’s win.
“It’s encouraging growing our confidence early and that’s what we need to start the season off fast,” David said. “You know, start the season off right the right way. Not trying to be down like how we were last year with our head in our hands. We’re trying to start fast and the sky is the limit for us. I’m just trying to keep making plays out there.”
David is off to a great start to the 2017 season, and currently is the top-rated linebacker in the NFL with a 91.3 grade, according to Pro Football Focus.
Sounds like he is starting off the season fast – as expected.