Though the Bucs have just four sacks through three games, DE Simeon Rice and the defensive line have contributed many big plays
The ink wasn't dry on Simeon Rice's new Buccaneer contract this past March when speculation began about the heights Tampa Bay's defensive line could reach in 2001.
After setting a new team record with 55 in 2000 – a full 11 more than the previous mark of 44 – the team released DE Chidi Ahanotu and replaced him with Rice, the former Cardinal who had 52.5 sacks in his first five NFL seasons. With Marcus Jones sliding from right end to left to replace Ahanotu and Rice taking over the on the right side, the Bucs marched into 2001 with four former first-round picks starting on their defensive line.
The sack possibilities seemed limitless, particularly with DT Warren Sapp coming off a team-record 16.5 sacks last fall – equal to Rice's best sack season with the Cardinals – and Jones looking to follow up on a 13-sack campaign. Sapp set his sights on Mark Gastineau's individual sack record of 22 and the 1985 Chicago Bears' team standard of 72 sacks was even discussed.
And, indeed, a month into the new season, the Bucs are making an early run at a team defensive record. It just might not be the one you expected.
Through three games, Tampa Bay's defense has seven interceptions and is second in the league in picks per pass play. The Bucs' pass defense has not shot out of the gates this fast, with seven picks in its first three contests, since 1989, when they went on to record 24 interceptions.
The team record for interceptions in a season is a whopping 35, set in 1998. The Bucs have not even come close to that mark before or since, as 25 in 1993 is the second-best season total in franchise history. The Bucs' current pace would lead to 37 interceptions by season's end.
Six different players are responsible for the Bucs' seven interceptions, which would seem to indicate that there have been turnover opportunities all over the field. It is no stretch to say that, while the Bucs' defensive line has a surprisingly low total of four sacks thus far, the expected pressure up front is instead paying dividends through the airways.
"When you want to get rid of the ball and throw it quick, you're not always throwing it as accurately," said Dungy. "We had a very good rush on the last interception that Dexter (Jackson) had. It was either going to be a holding penalty or a sack if (Brett Favre) held the ball any longer. We've had some chances for other balls as well."
Lest we mislead you with the contrast of numbers between the Bucs' picks and sacks, the team is not unhappy with its pass rush. In fact, Dungy believes those four first-rounders, plus common subs Steve White and Chartric Darby, are doing a good job of pressuring the quarterback.
"I think we're rushing well," said Dungy. "We've rushed two quarterbacks that have made some plays. If you look at the individual rushing and guys who are coming, they've been rushing pretty well.
"I think if you watch all the rush cuts individually, you'd see some pretty good rushes. I wouldn't say we're unhappy with the rush. I think the rush has been very good, as a matter of fact."
The season is less than a quarter over, and Dungy expects the sack numbers to come. Buccaneer pass rushers have been, at least in part, victims of circumstance so far this season. Tampa Bay opened the season at Dallas, where rookie QB Quincy Carter threw only 19 times and almost exclusively out of quick, three-step drops. The Bucs' next two opponents featured masterful improvisers in Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and Green Bay's Favre, and many potential sacks came up just short.
At the very least, the threat of the Bucs' pass rush is real to their opponents, who have made some adjustments in their offensive approaches.
"They have been a little quicker in throwing," said Dungy. "I think the two guys that we've played the past two weeks have been patient and dropped the ball off. These two teams know us pretty well. They have good offensive lines and I think we rush well. We just haven't done the job on third down - I think we're last in the league on third-down defense. I think a lot of that is we're not doing our job on specific plays. Once we get that straight, I think the sacks will come."
And Rice, who has one of the team's four sacks, has made as big of an impact as expected. In fact, he has been better than advertised against the run, as the Bucs believed he could be when they signed him in March. Rice was the player Dungy referred to above as the strong rusher on Jackson's interception. And, in addition to several tackles near the line of scrimmage on Sunday, Rice turned in one of the biggest defensive plays of the game when he caught WR Antonio Freeman five yards deep on a third-and-10 end-around in the fourth quarter.
"He's had some big plays," said Dungy. "He hasn't got the sacks, but he's playing that right-end position pretty well. He had a couple nice plays against the run and on the third-down reverse he actually went inside of Favre and still made the play. That's what he can do, make the sensational plays, and he's learning to make the routine plays within the system."
For a defensive lineman, the sensational play is usually the sack, and you can be certain that Sapp, Rice and company are eager to add to the team's total in the coming weeks. Should they continue to make intense pressure on the quarterback a routine matter, they should get their wish.