The 2016 NFL season is at its midpoint and things aren’t exactly going as planned for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There’s the frustrating 0-4 home record. There are the depth issues exposed by a flood of injuries. There’s the up-and-down, erratic play of franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. There’s the kicker. There are the questionable game-management decisions of a first-time head coach.
And then there’s the defense.
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images
After consecutive games of surrendering a combined 73 points and 1,087 yards, all the preseason optimism surrounding new coordinator Mike Smith’s defensive scheme has been drained right out of One Buc Place.
Adding to the alarm and confusion of the situation are the struggles of weakside linebacker Lavonte David, one of the Bucs’ best all-around players since joining the club in 2012. The 26-year-old Miami native has averaged 144.3 tackles per season and finished as Tampa Bay’s leader in that statistical category for four straight years.
That appears to be changing in 2016. Not only is David not among the league leaders in tackles, he’s barely even in the top three on his own team. Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander’s 72 tackles pace the Bucs through eight games, followed by safety Bradley McDougald’s 48. David has 44, which ties him for third with safety Chris Conte. That puts David on pace for 88 on the year.
It didn’t take long for David’s odd reduction in productivity in Smith’s system to start attracting attention. The linebacker played all 66 snaps during a Week 2 drubbing in Arizona and didn’t log a single tackle. Two hits on the quarterback but not even an assisted tackle.
Fast-forward to last Thursday night against Atlanta and it was more of the same: four tackles and looking slow to react in coverage.
“There’s no getting around the numbers part, but Lavonte is being asked to do some different things than he was being asked to do the last couple years,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. “When we went back over this little mini-bye and looked at all the players, there were things that we can do better at every position, and linebacker is one of those positions.”
Bucs DC Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Neither Koetter nor Smith dive into the details when asked about what those “different things” are that the linebacker is being asked to do. When asked about it during Monday’s open locker room media period, David didn’t either. He acknowledged there are different responsibilities to learn and get comfortable with, but that he’s not being held back by the system.
“I don’t think it’s taking me out of plays, I think it’s helping me,” David said. “It’s helping me be a better overall player, whether it’s coverage or whether it’s a run-fit. What you guys see outside is different than what people see inside, so that’s why I really don’t put too much into it.”
As for his thoughts on the middle linebacker being the primary tackler in Smith’s defense, David focused more on how each player needs to fulfill his responsibilities for the system to work.
“I think it’s just all about in this defense everybody has a certain fit,” David said. “Each guy has a fit where each guy … somebody has to make a play. A different player makes a play on a certain fit, so it all works hand-in-hand. It’s all about just playing together and everybody doing their job.”
As Koetter mentioned during his press conference, the numbers aren’t lying. David’s playing in his third defense in five years, starting with the Greg Schiano-Bill Sheridan combo and followed by Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier the last two seasons. The early returns don’t look pretty for the linebacker or the defense as a whole.