TAMPA — It was the two-minute warning, the Bucs clinging to a three-point lead against the Dolphins on Monday night, when coach Greg Schiano gathered his defense near the sideline.
His team already had blown leads in the final 89 seconds in four games this season. And after giving up two first downs, there was the feeling of another victory slipping through their hands like a wet bar of soap.
That's when Lavonte David stepped up by stepping out of character.
The second-year linebacker already commands attention with his play. He leads the team in nearly every defensive category, including tackles (77), tackles-for-loss (13), sacks (five), quarterback hits (nine) and passes defensed (five).
Earlier, his second-quarter tackle of running back Daniel Thomas resulted in a safety.
But aside from calling defensive signals, David performs his job with the quiet of a jewel thief. Coaches have always liked the way David leads with his deeds, but they absolutely loved hearing him do it with his words Monday.
Before Schiano finished his speech, David interrupted, taking over the huddle with what sounded as much like a warning as a promise.
"This needs to stop now!" David screamed.
"Because he doesn't speak up much and stopped the huddle and said what he said, everybody was like, 'You know what, man? For a guy who does what he does and rarely talks, it's time to go,' " defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "I don't think we had a choice."
It's one thing for players to provide lip service during critical junctures. It's another when a player such as David, who usually leads with his feet and hands, does so with his mouth. What's more, the Bucs responded.
On first down, they sent David and safety Mark Barron on a blitz. That created one-on-ones for linemen Da'Quan Bowers and William Gholston, and they combined to sack Ryan Tannehill.
"After the first sack, (David) came to me and said, 'Now you go get the next one,' " McCoy said. "I was like, 'Oh, yeah, all right.' "
And so he did, dropping Tannehill for a 10-yard loss. The game was clinched two plays later when cornerback Darrelle Revis intercepted a desperation heave to Mike Wallace on fourth and 28.
"Generally, guys will … speak up from time to time, but that's not been his M.O," Schiano said of David. "I think it was a growth moment. He was bold. He took a step out of his comfort zone."
It is one of the memorable vignettes of the season, and Schiano, who speaks in reverent tones about the 23-year-old, did not let it pass without referring to it a half-dozen times last week.
"It was just one of those moments where something needed to be said," David said. "At the beginning of the year, we were in that same exact situation — last drive — and we didn't come up on the winning end of it. We got in that situation again, and I felt like I should step up and say something to get the guys motivated, get the guys hyped up. My words … I didn't think they were much, but it motivated guys."
The Bucs expected big things from the 6-foot-1, 233-pound David when they drafted him in the second round out of Nebraska in 2012. But his performance in the first 24 games has exceeded them.
Not only is David an instinctive player, he has a knack for rushing the passer and is as good in coverage as they had hoped.
"He's got to be playing as well as any linebacker in the NFL," said Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose team faces the Bucs today.
In Week 1 against the Jets, David had a monster game: eight tackles (two for a loss), two passes defensed, a sack and an interception.
But with the Jets trailing by two, no timeouts and seven seconds remaining in the game, quarterback Geno Smith took off down the sideline near midfield. David shoved him hard toward the bench, drawing a flag for a late hit. The 15-yard penalty enabled Nick Folk to split the uprights with a winning 48-yard field goal.
David said he never thinks of that play or how it might have impacted the season.
"That's not characteristic of me," he said. "I've got guys around me who kept my head up and moving forward."
Before he stops moving this season, David could be named to his first Pro Bowl.
"It would be big. Going to Hawaii in my second year, that would be amazing," he said. "But it's not up to me. I'm just going out there, doing what I do, playing football, playing the game I love. I will leave that to the fans and all my peers."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]