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Buccaneers expecting more on defense in 2017 after midseason turnaround

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith had a little project this offseason -- compile a tape for each player featuring the good, bad and ugly plays they were responsible for. Then assistant coaches were to watch those tapes privately with players.

It was an eye-opener, even for guys such as sixth-year linebacker Lavonte David, a former First-Team All-Pro, Pro Bowler and defensive captain.

"It was what I needed, to be honest," David said. "It was really what I needed. Since I've been here, I don't think I ever had that, so when I [saw] that, I thought it really helped me out a lot."

The tapes helped David see not just what he was doing and what he was supposed to be doing, but to learn why he was doing it. That was invaluable after his first year in a new system, one that featured some growing pains for him and some of his teammates.

"[It] kinda helps you learn [the] defense," David said. "What could be better, what you did good on this play and what you did bad on a certain play, this guy loafed, this guy missed tackles -- they had a whole bunch of things that you could put in your bag of things to get better at."

In addition to helping the players, it gave the coaching staff feedback on what they needed to improve on as teachers. The process took about three weeks.

Another offseason project for the defense has been continuing to improve communication. It was a huge issue for them in the first half of last season. Players weren't speaking up in meetings, in walk-throughs or out on the practice field. Smith believed a lot of it had to do with everything being so new.

Balls would fly over defensive backs' heads. They were getting gashed on run plays that should have never gotten to the second level. A 43-28 blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons at home was rock bottom. Even with their late-season turnaround and five-game win streak, they still managed to give up 96 explosive pass plays, the most in the league, and 41 explosive run plays (tied for fifth).

"They [didn't] want to talk because guys [didn't] want to be wrong," Smith said. "I told them, 'We've got to get over that. We've got to go through this learning process that you go through as a defensive football team.'

"Unfortunately, in our society today we don't talk enough. We text a lot, we Snapchat but we don’t talk a whole lot. I told our guys, 'Look, I think we probably would be a lot better if we all took our phones out there and texted to one another.' We probably wouldn’t have the same mistakes that we had."

The goal is not to have any of that and hit the ground running next year, according to defensive end Robert Ayers. They also really need to close out games in the fourth quarter.

"We definitely took steps last year. I think we sort of tailed off a little bit at the end against Dallas and New Orleans," Ayers said. "We want to pick up where we kind of were in that period where we were playing pretty good. We want to come out in Week One and dominate. That's the goal, that's what we want to do and that's what we strive for."

Another area in need of improvement -- first and second down. Despite having the league's best third-down conversion percentage (34.4 percent), they gave up 179.9 yards per game on first down, third-worst in the league. They fared better on second down, giving up 117.5 yards per game, 11th in the league.

The good news, Smith believes, is that they're no longer in the learning stages. With the exception of rookies, players all understand the terminology and their respective roles. That should make a world of a difference. They can play instinctively, and they can trust themselves and each other.

"We're not starting at '2+2 is 4' -- we’re into calculus," Smith said. "We're able to install a lot quicker. We're going to be able to put in a few more wrinkles and hopefully it'll be effective. The big thing for us is we know these guys now. We know what they're capable of doing and we've also added, I think, some guys that are going to come in and help us at all three levels."