DE Simeon Rice is heating up down the stretch, but the Bucs are also getting pass-rush contributions from more unlikely sources
When second-year defensive end Dewayne White knocked Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick to the ground just outside the Falcons' end zone on Sunday, it gave White 5.5 sacks on the season. That's also White's career sack total, which leaves him just 95.5 behind Simeon Rice.
That's no knock on White, whose career is just beginning while Rice has been established as one of the league's best pass-rushers since 1996. Furthermore, White has collected all of his sacks while playing out of position at defensive tackle, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been desperate for help since losing Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Damian Gregory to injured reserve.
At this point, Rice is still the more likely bet to take over a game, as he did for stretches against Atlanta on Sunday, while White's out-of-nowhere production at defensive tackle has been a huge help for an injury-riddled team.
Rice and White do share one statistic, however, that sets them apart from every other defender in franchise history. When White tripped up Vick in the fourth quarter on Sunday, it marked the sixth straight game in which he has recorded at least half a sack. Until that moment, Rice was the only Buccaneer who could make that claim, having set the team record with six consecutive games with a sack in 2002 (including an NFL-record five straight with at least two sacks).
Another end-turned-tackle, Chidi Ahanotu, had his own sack streak snapped at three games against the Falcons, but he has still contributed 2.5 QB takedowns in just four games since being signed in early November. Clearly, the Bucs have been getting pass-rush production from all over, which has played no small part in the team's pass defense rising all the way to the top spot after the Atlanta game.
"It's a credit to Chidi Ahanotu and Dewayne White, two guys who really weren't projected to play the defensive tackle position," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Dewayne White might be a hell of a football player as an inside player."
Ahanotu, at least, had started his career as a defensive tackle, way back in 1993 as a sixth-round pick of the Buccaneers. He has long been considered a very versatile lineman. White hasn't played defensive tackle since his high school days, and he is still primarily brought in on passing downs, where he is more likely to need upfield penetration then a stout hold-up in the middle of the trenches. When the Bucs' three tackles went down, it seemed like an unusual move for White to slide inside, but he was simply happy to get playing time of any variety. A second-round draft pick in 2003, White had played sparingly as a rookie, recording just nine tackles and no sacks.
White just wanted to be involved. That the offensive line has seen a definite up tick in its sack totals since he made his move is a bonus. After recording just six sacks through the first five games, the Bucs have had 29 in the last seven games. Only once in that seven-game stretch have they been held to fewer than four sacks.
"It all starts with the defensive line," said White after Sunday's game, in which Vick was dropped five times and constantly nudged into a backpedal. "If we get pressure on the quarterback, we stop the run. Everybody else's job gets much easier."
In fact, with their second-half surge, the Bucs have moved into first-place in the league in sacks per pass play, a statistic that goes quite nicely with a shut-down secondary. The Bucs have 35 sacks in 367 passing plays, or almost one for every 10th time the opposing quarterback drops back to throw.
It's no coincidence, either, that the Bucs' pass defense has improved since Rice started getting to the quarterback again. Facing some double teams and a lot of quick-drop passing, Rice had just one sack through the season's first five games. But he has seven sacks in the last seven games and was clearly at his most dominant on Sunday against Vick.
"His pursuit of the ball, his pressure, his playmaking was out-of-sight [on Sunday]," said Gruden. "He got held two or three times and I think two or three other times it wasn't called. He was as athletic and relentless as I have seen him and it is a credit to him; being a leader on this football team, being a great player. That's how they have to perform in big games."
Rice finished the game with two sacks, a forced fumble and two passes defensed, the latter stat on a pair of plays that were just inches away from being forced fumbles. His first sack gave him 100 on his career and made him just the 22nd NFL player ever to reach that mark.
By the second half, Rice was seeing a very familiar sight: Extra linemen coming over to help out his man. Of course, even causing that change is having a significant effect on the game. Rice will have to finish on a big-time tear to match his sack totals from the last two years (15.5 and 15.0), but he is still every bit the pass-rushing force he has been for years.
"It's hard [to get a sack], trust me," said Rice after the game. "When you face doubles and triples, and you lose a guy like Warren Sapp, you become a marked man. You kind of understand what the game is like. From their scheme, you could just see them playing with their linemen to try to bring more people to me. It's never easy. I wish it was, trust me."
It hasn't been easy and it hasn't come about in the normal way, this Buc pass rush that is once again changing games. Rice had to plug through a statistically slow start; White had to move out of position; Ahanotu had to sit by his phone for five weeks after leaving the Dolphins. The Bucs have had to blitz and get sack contributions from 12 different players, including underrated end Greg Spires, who has 4.5.
But the Bucs' fearsome front is back, and that's another reason for optimism in this last, crazy month of the playoff race.