DE Simeon Rice had two sacks in his hometown of Chicago and has seven in the last six games
When defensive ends Simeon Rice and Kevin Carter switched teams this past offseason, two extremely noteworthy pass-rushing combos were created.
In Nashville, where the Tennessee Titans had brought Carter via a trade, the thought was he would combine with 'The Freak,' DE Jevon Kearse, to create an instant pinch on opposing quarterbacks from the outside.
In Tampa, the Buccaneers added Rice to a defensive line that had set a team record the year before with 55 sacks. By pairing Rice with DT Warren Sapp, the Bucs put together an inside-outside duo as prolific as the DE combo in Tennessee.
So, halfway through the 2001 season, both cities were saying, 'Where are the sacks?'
Seven games into the season in Tampa, Rice and Sapp had exactly one sack each. For the Titans, Carter had just two sacks through the first seven games, while Kearse had six.
Two disappointed teams, then?
The Titans are reportedly very happy with the play of Carter, despite the low sack totals. The same is most definitely true in Tampa, where Head Coach Tony Dungy has insisted all along that the Bucs' star-studded defensive line has rushed the passer well, despite the low sack numbers.
And now the sacks are coming, particularly from Rice.
After recording just 13 sacks through the first seven games, about half what the Bucs were expecting, the team has quietly but steadily posted 20 QB takedowns in the last six contests. After having only one game of more than two sacks through the first seven games, Tampa Bay has not had fewer than three in any of the last six.
Leading the charge is Rice, whose season-long hard work has begun to pay off in the second half.
"He's a very active player that is working hard," said Dungy of Rice. "I think he was rushing the passer pretty well at the beginning of the year, just wasn't quite having the luck to get there. He's had some very good rushes the last four or five games and the sack numbers are starting to come. He's worked hard all year."
If Rice was on a slow cook for the first half of the season, he's been quick to heat up on recent Sundays. In just six games, Rice has made 20 tackles, recorded seven sacks, caused two fumbles and knocked down seven passes. Sunday in Chicago, Rice's hometown, the former University of Illinois star was a rare bright spot for the Bucs, recording two of Tampa Bay's three sacks. Clearly, he enjoys playing in Soldier Field, the historic park he grew up dreaming about. In his only other game there, a college affair during his junior season with the Illini, Rice had a school-record five sacks.
He also is beginning to enjoying playing in the Bucs' system more and more.
"Coming into a new situation, you have to learn," said Rice. "You have to learn the system and you have to learn the chemistry. Those things build on themselves. I learned when I have to do the inside move. You know they're there, but you have to chisel away and define when you can take advantage of certain things. That's what I'm doing. My timing is there and I'm still the same guy."
The same guy, that is, who had 51.5 sacks through his first five seasons, one of the few active players who set a quicker sack pace in his early career than Sapp. Rice had 12.5 sacks as a rookie in 1996, tying a record that was later broken by Kearse's 14.5 in 1998. He had 16.5 sacks in 1999, falling just one-half sack short of the NFL lead behind none other than Carter, than with the St. Louis Rams.
Rice did all of this stellar pass-rushing for the Arizona Cardinals, who made him the third overall pick in the '96 draft. Despite those 51.5 sacks in five seasons, not much was done to preserve the Rice-Cardinals marriage at the end of the 2000 season, and Rice was eager to try his hand in the Bucs' aggressive system.
"Once you buy into what you're doing and learn what you've got to learn, you tend to flourish," he said of his late-season breakthrough. "I think that's what's been happening with me. The player that I am and that the player that I aspire to be is always my motivating factor. I believe I'm one of the best in this game."
He has surged up to ninth in the NFC with his eight sacks and could soon become just the seventh player in Buc history to hit double digits in that category. Of course, that has been a feat of less rarity in recent seasons, with Sapp setting the team record at 16.5 last season and he Marcus Jones and Chidi Ahanotu accounting for five 10-sack (or more) campaigns since 1997.
And it is the continuing presence of Sapp (five sacks), Jones (three) and DT Anthony McFarland (2.5) that has helped Rice break out as the team believed he would. With so many excellent pass rushers to account for, opposing teams sometimes have to pay less attention to a player like Rice than they would like to.
"I'm around a bunch of guys that are allowing me to take advantage of one-on-ones," said Rice. "And even when I get doubled, I can persevere because of the energy level. We play with a high energy level in this defense, and that's something you can build on."
Rice is building a second half to 2001 that should make the Bucs very happy about their 2001 offseason investment in a pass-rusher. Sapp, by the way, has also had four sacks in that same span to give the duo a total of 11 in the last six games. Kearse and Carter? A combined three.