DE Simeon Rice has reached double digits in sacks in each of his five seasons as a Buccaneer
Simeon Rice, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, is obviously an NFL star, but more than that he is a singularly talented athlete. Rice wrestled and ran track in high school, is a natural basketball player and runs wind sprints after each practice with the ease with which many of us would stroll through the park.
When you combine 4.7 speed and an explosive first step with a chiseled 6-5 frame, you're going to be able to handle yourself in most athletic arenas. Still, it appears as if Rice has finally found a bar that he can't always hurdle. It's the bar he's set for himself over the past nine seasons.
How else to explain that Rice's 12-sack, six-forced fumble, one-interception season has been met, relatively speaking, with a yawn? That, meanwhile, Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, who has 10.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, is being touted as a strong Defensive Player of the Year candidate?
Rice trails only four players in the entire NFL in sacks and is only a half-sack behind the Giants' Osi Umenyiora and the Titan's Kyle Vanden Bosch for the second spot, heading into Saturday's games. In addition, only two players in Buccaneer franchise history have had more than his six forced fumbles in a single season, and Rice could catch those two (Wally Chambers and Broderick Thomas) with one more.
The problem for Rice is that such a productive campaign is only too typical for him. In 2002 and 2003 he was selected to make the Pro Bowl, and his stats were only marginally better than they are know. In '02 he had 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and one interception. In '03 he had 15.0 sacks, six forced fumbles and two interceptions. Given that Rice has traditionally run roughshod over the Saints, Sunday's opponent, he could easily finish the season with almost identical numbers.
Yet no Pro Bowl and surprisingly little attention this year while Umenyiora and Vanden Bosch draw praise from every corner (and deservedly so) for their performances.
Of course, the Buccaneers appreciate what they have in Rice. Specifically what they have is the NFL's leading sack artist since the beginning of the 2002 season. He has 54.5 QB takedowns over those four seasons, ahead of Jason Taylor's 53.0, Dwight Freeney's 50.5 and Michael Strahan's 45.0. Rice, who signed with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent in 2001, actually got going late in that season and has 62.5 sacks in his last 68 games.
A player who gives you almost a sack a game? That's invaluable in the NFL. Quarterbacks who consistently have time to throw will usually succeed against even the best secondaries.
"We know that a good secondary starts with pressure up front," said cornerback Juran Bolden. "That's what you want as a cornerback. That's how you get picks."
By now, every Buccaneer fan is familiar with Rice's game. At his best moments, he gets off the line and around the left tackle before the lineman can do anything about it. As he swarms up on the quarterback's blind side, Rice chops with his right arm and knocks the ball loose even as he's burying the passer. That's exactly what he did to Atlanta's Matt Schaub in the end zone on November 20, on the one play that Schaub was in the game, leading to a fumble and Anthony McFarland's touchdown recovery.
Rice can also pursue speedy quarterbacks outside of the pocket and keep them from getting around the corner. He's athletic enough to occasionally drop into coverage, as his five career interceptions attest, he bats down more passes than most defensive ends (57 career passes defensed) and he has proven to be better against the run than advertised when he arrived after five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.
But sacks, of course, are the name of his game, and Rice has 117 in his career to rank 13th all-time and second among active players to Strahan. He recently reached double digits for the eighth time in his 10-year career, a number exceeded only by Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene and John Randle.
But there's that bar, which he established with his 30.5 sacks in 2002-03. Perhaps Rice can pick up a triple against the Saints – he' done that, amazingly, three other times against New Orleans – and reach 15 once again. He certainly would like to finish the regular season on a strong note, though he's thinking more in terms of team success.
"I think it's important to just finish this thing the way we've started, very dominant," said Rice. "We've got one more game to go. You acknowledge the fact that you're in the situation you're in, you're happy about, but we're not overwhelmed by our situation. We understand that our due diligence is going out each week and competing hard, seizing the day, getting victories. It's about Ws at this point. Coming into the playoffs, we want to finish the way we started, in a dominant fashion, just kind of preview what we're about, and how we've been doing it under the radar all year long."
Rice, of course, is almost as prolific with his words as he is with his sacks. He seems to draw real pleasure from painting the atmosphere of an event, and he certainly draws a crowd in the locker room whenever he speaks. His comments are almost always hopeful and forward-reaching. As the Bucs got set to vie for the division title on Sunday and start out on what they hope is a successful playoff run, Rice contemplated what it would take to continue the team's late-season surge.
"Everybody has, I think, a piece of the victory that we've done this year," he said. "In the road that we're about to embark into, we're going to need the best from everybody – our personnel, our special teams, our units – to really do the things that we want to accomplish this year."
Rice knows that big plays can come from any corner of the Bucs' roster, particularly on a defense that includes such proven crunch-time performers as Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Greg Spires. The last time the Bucs played these Saints, five weeks ago, Barber sealed the game with his third pick of the day, intercepting an Aaron Brooks pass at the goal line in the final minute. Rice himself has had such big plays as the touchdown-causing strip at Atlanta and his diving interception of a deflected ball against Washington.
"We've won the tight games and before we didn't," said Rice. "Before we were receiving the brunt of the bad things that would happen. You see what happens at the end of the games now, at the tight part of the game we're stepping up and playing through it."
That's something new for the Buccaneers, at least as compared to the previous two seasons. Rice's big play-making – that's nothing new. His incredible, uninterrupted run of success may have inured the rest of the league to his accomplishments, but the Bucs are thrilled to have him.