TAMPA — If Atlanta coach Mike Smith has his way, Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Lavonte David will be packing for Hawaii in January.
As the struggling Falcons (2-7) prepare for Sunday’s matchup with the Bucs (1-8) at Raymond James Stadium, Smith can’t stop talking up David, a second-year pro who keeps turning in highlight-reel plays despite Tampa Bay’s dismal start.
“He’s all over the field,’’ Smith said Wednesday in a conference call with Tampa Bay reporters. “In my opinion, he’s got to be playing as well as any linebacker in the NFL. I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of the season he gets an opportunity to be on a Pro Bowl team.’’
David easily led the Bucs with 139 tackles as a rookie and his 77 stops through nine games tops Tampa Bay again this season. He also leads the Bucs with 13 tackles for loss and five sacks, adding a safety in Monday’s 22-19 win against Miami Monday night when he dropped RB Daniel Thomas in the end zone.
“David’s very dimensional,’’ Smith said. “There are a lot of things he does well. He plays the run extremely well, he can rush the passer and he can match up on tight ends and running backs and cover them.’’
The second-round draft pick out of Nebraska has won over Bucs coach Greg Schiano with his athleticism and his work ethic.
“I think Lavonte can be as good as there is and I think he’s already close to that as far as his productivity week in and week out,’’ Schiano said. “He’s growing as a leader and I think everyone in that locker room knows he’s special. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.’’
Smith averaged 11 wins in his first five seasons before this year’s 2-7 start. Despite their current struggles, the Falcons remain well supported by a fan base accustomed to success.
“We expect them to continue to support us week-in and week-out, because we need those guys so much,’’ Falcons WR Roddy White said. “When you win so many games over the last five or six years, you can get spoiled, and this year’s been different. I just expect everybody to just hang in there and bear with us.’’
Traditional NFL franchises such as the Steelers and Giants can appear bullet-proof in terms of unwavering fan support. Like Tampa, Atlanta features a transient population base with sports allegiances that can extend beyond the local club.
“We don’t have the long history of some of the teams, but our fans have been fantastic,” Smith said. “I know they’re frustrated, just as well as our players and coaches. We want to go out there and play in an atmosphere that is electric. Thus far, every game has been that way.’’
Watch the screen
The Falcons haven’t run the ball effectively in 2013, but their backs are dangerous in their dual roles as targets for QB Matt Ryan out of the backfield. In Atlanta’s 31-23 victory against the Bucs on Oct. 20 at the Georgia Dome, RB Jacquizz Rodgers caught a pair of TD passes.
His first score came when he beat David on an out pattern toward the left sideline for a 19-yard score. With the Falcons nursing a 24-17 advantage in the fourth quarter, Rodgers turned a simple middle screen into an 8-yard score.
“They’re a very good screen team and they have very good screen backs,’’ said Schiano.
One of the keys to Tampa Bay’s recent success on the ground has been sturdy down-field blocking that has supplemented the work of the offensive line.
After being limited to 48 rushing yards against Carolina, the Bucs ran for 205 yards at Seattle and followed up with 140 rushing yards against the Dolphins.
“Whether it’s the receivers or the tight ends getting up to the second level, those guys are doing their part,’’ Bucs offfensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. “It’s what we need to do and it helps create the type of field position and the momentum and the toughness.
“If we can throw when they don’t know we have to throw, it’s always going to be in our favor. Those guys have done a good job and they’re certainly contributing factors as to why we’ve had the success we’ve had.’’