In just his second pro season, Lavonte David produced top-tier numbers (145 tackles, seven sacks, five interceptions, two forced fumbles) while showcasing a skill set that meshes with today’s game at the weak-side linebacker position.
Let’s break down David’s talent using some examples from the All-22 film and project how Smith will maximize the 24-year-old's skill set to produce at an All-Pro level.
Speed, Burst to the Ball
At 6’1”, 233 pounds, David isn’t a downhill “thumper” who is going to consistently take on the Power O running scheme from the "Will" linebacker position.
Instead, we are talking about a linebacker who is extremely quick with his run/pass keys while displaying a ridiculous burst to track the ball, pursue laterally and finish with speed.
On tape, David has the transition ability to drop into coverage, flip the hips and create a positive angle as an underneath defender while also carrying the inside vertical seam—think Cover 2 or zone blitz technique.
A player who is consistently around the football, David can get to a landmark drop, read the quarterback and drive on the throw to impact the short-to-intermediate route tree.
That’s ideal in the nickel sub-package, where David can play underneath in Cover 2 or Cover 3 while also showing the ability to pressure or match as a seam-flat defender in zone blitz schemes.
With the Panthers using pre-snap motion to create a slot alignment to the open (weak) side of the formation, the Will linebacker (David) carries/matches the inside vertical release while the cornerback sinks at a 45-degree angle—protecting versus the corner route—and the free safety drops to the deep half.
David has to match/cushion speed down the seam (inside vertical) or redirect to play the deep, inside-breaking dig route (square-in).
With Steve Smith breaking outside to the 7-route (corner), David has to play the dig route. Instead of overrunning the break at the top of the stem, David displays eye discipline by reading the hips of the wide receiver, chopping his feet and “walling off” the cut.
This puts David in a position to open his hips to the quarterback—called an “open angle” technique—secure inside leverage and prevent the receiver from breaking back to the middle of the field.
That athleticism to flip the hips and attack the ball allows David to finish with an interception versus Newton, but don’t discount the technique involved to run the vertical seam drop and wall off the route stem.
I mentioned above that David isn’t an old-school, downhill player at the position, but his ability to read, react and pursue allows him to rack up tackles in both the base and sub-package (nickel) defenses.
Here’s an example of David making a play behind the line of scrimmage off an inside run stunt (interior A-gap) versus the Atlanta Falcons.
This is a base, two-back stretch with zone blocking up front (zone step to closed side of the formation), with David stemming before the snap to attack the A-gap.
As you can see here, David hits the line of scrimmage at the snap and gains leverage versus the center in his zone-blocking technique. This allows David to rip through an edge and continue a path up the field before the ball is even handed off.
Even with the fullback trying to redirect and get a piece of David, the Bucs linebacker runs through the attempted block and blows this play up in the backfield.
These are just a couple of examples from the All-22 film, but if you go back and study David’s 2013 season, you will see plenty of situations where he uses that athletic skill set to produce big plays versus both the run and pass game.
Ideal Fit in Smith’s Defensive System
However, having played in the same system back in St. Louis with Lovie and again under Perry Fewell in Buffalo, I can attest that this defense—which is based on fundamentals and technique—is an ideal fit for David.
Smith’s scheme is built on eye discipline, landmark drops and speed to the football, with clean angles that produce turnovers or field position.
In Tampa, the Bucs will show Cover 2 (Tampa 2) as one of their core calls with David playing the seam-hook or carrying the inside vertical as the Will linebacker. Think of a landmark drop (between the numbers and the hash) at a depth of 10-12 yards where David can get his shoulders square, read the quarterback and break on the ball.
It’s a playmaking position in Smith’s scheme (Derrick Brooks/Lance Briggs) that caters to smaller, athletic linebackers who get eyes on the quarterback, play fast and close on the ball.
But for as much as we associate the Tampa 2 scheme with Smith, the former Bears head coach played a lot of single-high looks during his final couple of seasons in Chicago. That means more Cover 1 (man-free), Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under), Under 10 (weak-side man rotation) and a variety of zone/man pressures.
Here’s a look at the type of zone pressure we will see from Tampa’s defense this season, using the Bears' 2013 tape as Smith’s scheme carried over under new coordinator Mel Tucker.
With the Bears showing double A-gap pressure (can also drop to two-deep) versus the Dallas Cowboys, the defense sends the nickel blitz off the edge and brings the Will linebacker through the open-side A-gap.
That allows the "Mike" linebacker (middle-hook defender) to match No. 3 (tight end), with the open-side defensive end dropping into coverage and the safeties rolling at the snap.
As I said above, Smith’s defense isn’t exotic compared to some of the other schemes we watch on tape. However, think about personnel, technique and speed in the 4-3 “Over” and “Under” fronts with David playing a key role on the weak side.
Remember, that’s where the ball is going versus this defense. Put your playmaker there and let him produce with a front four that should get home for Smith.
Development as a Pro
Is David already a star in the NFL going into his third season?
The tape—and the numbers—from 2013 are hard to ignore when discussing the top linebackers in the league. David played at an extremely high level and made impact plays in coverage versus the run game and as a pass-rusher when blitzing from the linebacker position.
However, I believe David has only begun to showcase a skill set that will be developed even more under Smith and his coaching staff.
Smith is going to teach technique, discipline and footwork within his scheme. Those are the main keys that will be on display during positional drills and teaching periods during camp. And it’s all done at top speed, with multiple hats to the ball-carrier.
In my opinion, this is a great defensive scheme to play in. It allows you to read your initial keys, get to a landmark and just play football.
It sounds simple and almost a bit high school-ish, but this defense works when you have the personnel to play with speed and attack downhill. However, every defense in the NFL needs a playmaker who shows up consistently in crucial game situations.
Given his speed, lateral quickness and ball skills, that should be David this year under the teaching of Smith.
The production should continue to climb for the linebacker in Tampa.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.