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Coming out party for Rice

Defensive end Simeon Rice unleashes terror on New England's passing game as he synchronizes with Warren Sapp.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Simeon Rice, who has 51 1/2 sacks in five seasons, rushes Drew Bledsoe for a takedown in the second quarter.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 26, 2001


TAMPA -- One week ago, Bucs coach Tony Dungy praised defensive end Simeon Rice for his outstanding play against the run in Cleveland.

In that game, Rice made a number of early stops in the backfield that will go a long way to diminishing his reputation for being less effective stopping the run.

But who are we kidding? Rice, 27, isn't in Tampa Bay to stuff running backs. He's here to devour quarterbacks. He's here to team with Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones and Anthony McFarland and ensure that no quarterback sleeps the night before playing the Bucs.

Saturday night against the New England Patriots, Rice, feeding off the havoc created by Sapp, was at his nightmarish best.

Scary and more scary.

"We were just coming," said Rice, who has 511/2 sacks in five seasons. "Things worked out. But the best is yet to come. We gave you all a sample of what we can do when we want to."

Added Sapp: "We're just looking for gradual improvement on a day-to-day basis. That's what we've been doing. We expect to do exactly what we did tonight."

In one memorable second-quarter stretch, Rice sacked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe for an 8-yard loss on third and 3, which forced New England to punt. The Bucs scored their only touchdown of the first half two plays later when Brad Johnson hit Aaron Stecker in the back of the end zone.

On New England's next possession, Rice beat rookie left tackle Kenyatta Jones, smashed into Bledsoe's arm as he was about to throw and forced an incomplete pass. The Patriots punted two plays later.

"Those guys are great football players and I have to give them the utmost respect," Patriots center Damien Woody said. "But we could have responded better than we did. We didn't play our best ball and once you do that against those guys, when you start putting yourself in third and longs, that's when they are at their best. That's when they eat you alive."

New England finally got the ball into Bucs territory late in the second quarter and had a first down on the Tampa Bay 31-yard line. Rice's penetration helped flush Bledsoe into the hungry paws of Sapp, who promptly dropped the quarterback for a 7-yard loss.

Left tackle Grant Williams, who had his hands full handling Rice, said part of what makes the pass-rushing specialist particularly dangerous is the way he meshes with Sapp.

"They were obviously very good last year," Williams said. "But as a tackle, you want to sit with the guard and help a bit on Sapp. But Simeon will spin on you and loop inside. You have to honor his speed. So, you can't help as much with the guard. It puts the guard in a bad situation."

Sapp, who has been to four consecutive Pro Bowls, said Rice routinely could have nights like Saturday's if the two continue to work in tandem.

"I've been telling him the tackle is going to sit on me, so he just needs to go underneath," Sapp said. "Tonight was the first time it's happened that way and he just looked at me wide-eyed. I said, "That's what I've been telling you.' "

Sapp hardly needs help getting to the quarterback, considering he set a franchise record with 161/2 sacks last year. But, after Rice's coming out party in the Bucs' one-gap defensive scheme, the possibilities seem endless.

"He's athletic, he's got the moves, he's cunning, he's going to know what to do," Sapp said. "We're going to get it going the more we work together. It's just a learning process."

Added Woody: "Remember, you have on one side a speed guy who is very fast. And then, you've a guy in Warren Sapp who has both. He has the power game and the speed game. They run a lot of (stunts) in there and they are going to be tough to handle during the regular season. We're not the only team that's going to have problems with those guys. I can tell you that."

-- Times staff writer John Romano contributed to this report.

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