The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a bad team. They're 3-5, have repeatedly thrown away games through their own mistakes, and have been outclassed repeatedly as well. Bucs fans have taken to blaming a lot of people -- and some of the ire is starting to come the way of two players who just a year ago looked to be the core of a future dominant defense: Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy.
The two are not the same.
Gerald McCoy is mostly fine, if a little disappointing
Gerald McCoy's always had his detractors among Bucs fans, starting the moment he disappointed with his performance on the bench press. You'd think that turning into the best three-technique in the NFL over the previous three years would have given him some leeway, but the disappointment with the Bucs' defensive performance and constant harping on his facial expressions rather than his actual performance have made the critics more and more vocal. Yesterday's game seems to be a flashpoint, as he had one tackle and hasn't had a sack in three games.
Now, McCoy's impact has never been well-measured by either tackles or sacks. While he's consistently been among the top sack artists at defensive tackle in the league over the past four years, his value has always been more his ability to disrupt an opponent's blocking scheme than the ability to rack up solo plays. His explosiveness eliminates certain run-blocking schemes, which is why the Bucs have had success stopping the run throughout most of his tenure, including this year.
Even so, he's being paid to get after the passer and that's been a struggle all year long. No, he isn't getting much help and yes, he's getting double-teamed constantly with the Bucs doing very little in their defensive design to help him out. But overall, he hasn't looked as explosive as he's looked in the recent past, and he hasn't gotten as much pressure on the quarterback as used to be the case. He is still showing up, though, and plays where he affects the passer are found in every game -- like below. They just tend to go unremarked upon.
There are some statistical reasons to suggest that he hasn't struggled as much as one would think, too. He has 11 quarterback hits so far this year, compared to 13 last season. He has 4.5 sacks, which is in line with his production in previous years. If you focus on just him play after play, you'll see the explosiveness and disruptive ability show up repeatedly, sometimes stifled by the Bucs' insistence on running ineffective pass rush games, other times by defensive ends running into him, other times by double teams, and other times by quick passes. The ability is still there, it's just not as consistent, and when it shows up its impact is blunted by circumstance.
McCoy may not be quite as dominant as he was in the past, he's still clearly a disruptive player and one of the best three-techniques in the NFL. And while it's fair to be disappointed by his impact, the calls we sometimes see for his benching, trade or even release are completely absurd.
Lavonte David is really struggling
Lavonte David is different. He earned a -6.4 grade from Pro Football Focus yesterday, and they haven't liked what he's done all season. That's not to say they're entirely accurate, as most run defense problems are caused by gap control issues and it's generally very difficult to see who's in the right and who's in the wrong gap without knowing the way the defense is designed, especially from TV cameras, which is what PFF is grading on.
I think David's been mostly solid in run defense, but they're not wrong to suggest that he's struggled overall. Clearly, he hasn't been able to provide the impact plays we saw from him in the past. Part of that is due to the scheme: Greg Schiano asked him to blitz, a lot, and simply put him in position more to make impact plays. Lovie Smith's scheme is less aggressive, and as a consequence he'll always have fewer opportunities for individual plays. That was clear last year, but the decline in splash plays doesn't mean he's not playing well.
Even so, his 36 solo tackles this year put him on schedule for just 72 on the season, nearly 30 fewer than at any time in the rest of his NFL career. Part of that may be explained by Kwon Alexander getting to the ball carrier more quickly than Mason Foster, but that's a precipitous drop. Similarly, he has just three tackles for loss compared to 17 last season, we've seen more missed tackles than we're used to out of him, and he seems to be just out of place in coverage far too regularly. Simply put, he's having a forgettable season at best.
Why this is is difficult to say. He doesn't look like he's lost any speed or explosiveness. He's still quick to diagnose and react. He just doesn't quite seem to get there. Where last year he'd track down the back out of the backfield and tackle him shy of the first down, now he's trailing by half a yard. Where last year he'd blow through the line of scrimmage to make a tackle for loss, now the back makes him miss and gains three yards.
There's nothing really to suggest that this is anything more than David struggling a little right now. Replacing him isn't going to make the team better right now, and he's earned plenty of faith with his play in previous years to assume that he'll be back to form sooner rather than later. But that won't change the fact that he's not as impactful now as he was the past three seasons.
Neither McCoy nor David is what's wrong with the Bucs
All that aside, neither Gerald McCoy nor Lavonte David is what's wrong with the Bucs defense right now. Replace them, and the defense will be even worse. While they've been disappointing, and David has arguably been bad, this defense has struggled primarily because the defensive ends can't beat anyone, the cornerbacks can't cover, and the Bucs continually leave the deep middle of the field open (the latter is sometimes on David). Those are the areas where the Bucs need to improve the most.