TAMPA — Look in the mirror. That's what linebacker Lavonte David and his teammates were told to do by coaches after poor defensive efforts against the Raiders and Falcons.
If he did, David probably didn't recognize the player staring back at him. Certainly he didn't resemble the All-Pro tackling machine that was rewarded with a five-year, $50.25 million contract before last season.
In the defense under new coordinator Mike Smith, David has been largely a nonfactor and the face of the Bucs' failure.
After averaging 144 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and 2.2 interceptions through his first four NFL seasons, David has watched his production plummet this year. Through eight games, he has only 44 tackles and one sack. For the first time in his career, David failed to record a tackle or a sack in a game, at Arizona in Week 2.
David, 26, isn't complaining about his status. He's the same confident, quiet team player he has always been.
"It's making me more versatile," David said. "Helping me not be stagnant and line up in different places and things like that. It's not bad at all. It's pretty fun, actually. Being up on the line of scrimmage and getting some of the action. Being one-on-one with blockers and stuff like that. It's different, but it's pretty cool."
But he also knows the Bucs are looking for stars such as himself and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to turn things around in the second half of the season. What can David do better?
"I've got to demand communication out there," David said. "I've got to demand the level of play out there from everybody — myself, also. If nothing is going the way it's supposed to, then obviously each and every one of us is not doing something right. That's why I took a step back and looked into the mirror. I thought maybe I could study more, understand what the offense is going to try to beat us with when we're in a certain defense. Basically just sitting back and looking at the bigger picture."
The big picture doesn't look so good.
Tampa Bay entered Thursday with the fourth-worst scoring defense in the league, allowing an average 29 points per game. Opposing quarterbacks have a 103.5 passer rating. The Bucs can't consistently rush the passer.
"Well, we have no choice, we have to get better," coach Dirk Koetter said. "If we don't, then it's going to be a long eight weeks, and that's not how we're looking at it. We're looking at it as it's halftime and we've got to make adjustments and come out swinging in the second half (of the season). It starts with communication.
"It starts with everybody knowing what to do and how to do it. After that, from a scheme standpoint, we've got to put our best players in position to make plays. And then the players that are playing those positions, our A players have to play like A players, and B players have to play like B players. … We're just not where we need to be in those areas right now, and we've got eight games to get it right."
So how did the Bucs turn David from one of the best linebackers in the NFL into a relative lamb? From outstanding to bystander?
For starters, he isn't just lining up behind McCoy on the weak side of the formation and playing see ball, hit ball. Smith has moved David around and given him more responsibilities. Sometimes he's on the line of scrimmage, engaging blockers from the snap.
This isn't like 2009, when the Bucs hired defensive coordinator Jim Bates. While he ran a 4-3 defense, the defensive linemen moved to a two-gap system and defensive backs played more man coverage instead of Tampa 2. Bates was fired 10 games into the season after a 1-9 start.
Nobody is calling for Smith's job yet. But the Bucs will need to show improvement in the second half, and it starts with getting more out of players such as David.
"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," Koetter said. "When we went back over this little minibye (week) and looked at all the players, there were things that we can do better at every position, and linebacker is one of those positions.
"But quarterback is one of those positions, wideout is one. I'm not going to stand here and share all the stuff that we're telling the players that we need to get better at it. That would be foolish. But we have a list of things at every position, and like I said, we started addressing those things with the guys (Monday) morning."