TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith hears the whispers and sees the reports. In fact, just after the Bucs surrendered 48 points to the Chicago Bears in Week 4, an online petition had been set up calling for his firing.
"I've got tracks on my back through the years," Smith said of enduring that kind of scrutiny. "That's part of it."
Media members questioned coach Dirk Koetter's loyalty to Smith. Over the past 2 1/2 seasons, the Bucs have given up more yards (381.1) than any other team in the league, and no coaching change had been made. This season, the Bucs have given up 445.8 yards per game.
For comparison's sake, his playcalling predecessor, Lovie Smith, was fired after his defense gave up 354.7 yards per game over two years.
Two years ago, Mike Smith was the guy the Bucs absolutely could not let get away, even when his name would come up in head-coaching searches around the league. His defense wasn't just a major factor, but it was the reason the Bucs went on a five-game win streak to finish 9-7, falling just short of the playoffs. Extending Smith's contract with the team was seen as a major victory by fans in Tampa.
Many of those same fans now want him out of town.
"This is a production business, as we all know," Smith said. "When you don't get the production that you like, hey, there's going to be self-criticism that's a lot tougher than [what] we get from you folks."
Having spent nearly 20 of his 35 years coaching in the NFL, including seven seasons as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons where he earned 2008 NFL Coach of the Year honors, he gets it.
"It's a trickle-down [effect]. Trust me," defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said. "We all feel responsible. Not just Mike Smith. Every coach on the defensive side of the ball, we all take responsibility and should take responsibility."
Some players relayed they felt lost during that Week 4 loss and it showed. For example, on four different occasions, the Bears utilized wheel routes for explosive plays.
"They didn't do a good enough job. We didn't do a good enough job," Smith said. "In man-coverage on a couple of them, one time we had a guy (Justin Evans) fall down. Two other times we had busts in terms of technique that wasn't properly executed."
During the Bucs' Week 5 bye, Smith retreated to the team facility for a series of 12-to-15-hour workdays. He dissected every single defensive snap from all four of the Bucs' games.
"You get the opportunity to set the pause [button] and recalibrate where you're at [during the bye week]. You're not in the fox hole like you are in most weeks," Smith said. "We got an opportunity to evaluate the call first and foremost -- that's the first thing you do as a playcaller -- and then you get an opportunity to look at the players' techniques that they played with, and then we as a staff get an opportunity to say, 'OK, in preparation, what did we do well and what did we do poorly?'"
The NFL isn't just about having a savvy game plan going into each game. It's about making adjustments, and then countering the opponent's adjustments for a full-on chess match.
Smith had two rookie starters in the lineup against the Bears -- cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart -- and safety Isaiah Johnson, who was making his first NFL start. But the NFL doesn't make concessions for injuries and he'll need to find answers against Atlanta because it won't get any easier on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox).
Atlanta still boasts one of the NFL's most potent offenses. Even with some early hiccups this season, the Falcons are averaging more than 30 points a game. Julio Jones remains one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the league. Rookie Calvin Ridley is coming on quickly.
Smith is choosing to remain optimistic, even as patience around him is wearing thin. He called the Chicago game "an anomaly," even if it really wasn't. It was the 19th time in 36 games that the Bucs' defense gave up more than 400 yards under him.
It wasn't a bigger issue this season because the Bucs lit up the scoreboard the first three weeks, averaging nearly 32 points, but it's unrealistic to expect that level of production every week. Smith's defense has to shoulder that load, too.
"The sky is not falling. I can assure you. It felt like it was friggin' crumbling on top of us when we walked off the field in Chicago," Smith said. "[But]... as a defense, we are committed together to right that ship and not play defensive football like we played there."