FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - When it was over, Bucs quarterback Chris Simms wasn't sure how many times he had been sacked among the many hits he took from the Patriots.
It was easy to lose track.
Simms was sacked seven times by the Patriots Saturday, including six by a blitz-happy linebacking corps that came at Simms in swarms.
Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi.
Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel.
Mix and match was the theme for New England's linebackers, who did their best to confuse Simms and foul up Tampa Bay's protection schemes with a variety of blitzes.
"Obviously, they beat somebody, whether it be an offensive lineman or a back," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "We came in with a lot of seven-man protections. We weren't outnumbered. We got whipped a couple of times and we've got to take a look at that."
McGinest and Bruschi had two sacks each; Vrabel, Colvin and defensive back Artrell Hawkins one each. The starting linebackers forced two fumbles, recovered one and combined for 30 of the team's 66 tackles. "They have probably been our most consistent unit all year and they did it again," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "Those guys showed up on a lot of plays, knocked some balls loose, made some negative plays. It was a real productive effort by that group."
Vrabel and McGinest combined to make the play that sealed the Bucs' fate late in the first half. Vrabel ran untouched into the backfield and hit Simms from behind, forcing a fumble. McGinest recovered and returned it 19 yards to the Bucs 27-yard line.
Vrabel was lined up just outside Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker, but Walker blocked a lineman in front of him and there was no running back to pick up Vrabel.
"There could have been some confusion," Gruden said. "There could have been a breakdown of some kind."
Three plays later, Tom Brady threw a 16-yard touchdown to receiver David Givens for a 21-0 lead.
"When you play a team like the Patriots and you get behind - and you know they want to blitz anyway - it's a tough day," Walker said. "You get in third-and-long situations, and you can't do that."
Simms expected the Patriots to blitz often, and they did not disappoint.
"That's kind of been their motto the last few weeks," Simms said. "Of late, they have been kind of an all-or-nothing team. They're either dropping eight into coverage or they're going to bring eight on a blitz. We were completely prepared for that. But when you get down 21-0 and they know you're going to throw every play, it gets into the kind of game they want to be in."
The Patriots' pass rush took the long pass out of the Bucs offense because Simms rarely had time to set up in the pocket, let alone wait for a deep route to develop. The Bucs tried, but never could throw deep to Joey Galloway.
"We did have a few called that we never really did get launched," Gruden said. "You ever seen the duds, the smoke bombs you buy at the store, where you light the fuse and it doesn't go off? We had a couple duds today, to say the least.
"New England doesn't give you a lot of single coverage. They're playing a lot of two-deep zone, four-deep zone, three-deep zone with the blitz. So, you've got to pick up these men that are blitzing. Generating down-the-field seams and vertical shots, it's not the easiest thing to do."