Simeon Rice was just one of the names thrown into the swirl wind of rumors surrounding a supposed “fire sale” by he Buccaneers prior to Tuesday’s trading deadline.

If that were the case, you wouldn’t have known it by the way Tampa bay head coach Jon Gruden took up for his cause on Thursday. Gruden responded to recent criticism levied upon the Pro Bowl defensive end by former teammate Keyhawn Johnson as well as New York Giants Michael Strahan.

“I don’t care, man. I couldn’t care less,” said Gruden. “I could give a rat’s ass about that. I mean, we got a guy who has over 100 sacks, for crying out loud. His reputation speaks for itself.”

Rice and Strahan, who owns the NFL single-season sack record (22.5) have engaged in a war of words lately. While egos among NFL players never tend to be shy, Rice sparked some angst in Strahan recently with the proclamation that he was the heir apparent to great pass rushers such as Buffalo’s Bruce Smith and Green Bay’s Reggie White.

In a September issue of The Sporting News, Strahan used Rice to defend himself against criticism he has received for a slow start. Both Strahan and Rice have just one sack this season.

“If you just don’t want to pay attention to the other stuff and just run up the field then you’re going to be a Simeon Rice,” Strahan said in the interview.

Strahan posted 11.5 sacks in 2005 while Rice recorded 14. But the seven-time Pro Bowler and 2001 Defensive Player of the Year ranks ahead of Rice in career sacks among active players, 130.5 to 120.

Now Keyshawn Johnson has thrown his hat into the mix, stripping down his former Super Bowl teammate in order to pump up a new one, Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers leads the league in sacks with eight this season.

Speaking to a group of Charlotte reporters on Wednesday, Johnson said, “All Simeon Rice does is rush the passer, that’s it. If he doesn’t get to the quarterback, you can forget about it. He ain’t making any other plays.”

Johnson and Gruden haven’t exactly been pen pals since Johnson’s swift departure from the Bucs in 2003. A light-hearted Gruden quickly turned to his infamous scowl, sticking his chest out for Rice.

“Not to be harsh, but Jiminy Christmas,” Gruden said. “I back my guy all the way. I think he’s a heck of a player. For crying out loud, everybody’s got an opinion. That doesn’t mean their opinion, just because you’re an analyst or just because you’re allowed to have an opinion, means you’re right either.

“But I think we got a heck of a football player. I think he’s backed that up. For crying out loud, we’re all being criticized. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. You also have a lot of history in pro football with Simeon Rice. I’m glad he’s here. We’re looking for more guys like him.”

Tampa Bay travels to New York to meet with Giants on Oct. 29. Two weeks after that game, the Bucs go to Carolina for a Monday night showdown with Johnson and the Panthers.

The Eagles rank fourth in the NFL in team sacks with 23. The Bucs have been respectable so far in protecting the quarterback, allowing nine sacks over the first five games.

But Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is known for his blitz packages. He’s been known to come at quarterbacks from every angle with what you might refer to as a “whole mess of players.”

That doesn’t seem to be crowding the thoughts of some Bucs linemen.

“They couldn’t blitz us more than the Ravens did. I guarantee you that,” said Bucs center John Wade. “They might be equal to that, but it can’t be more.”

Baltimore got to Chris Simms three times in the opening week of the season. While rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski is considered  a very mobile quarterback, the onus to protect him falls on the shoulders of the offensive line, and Wade in particular.

“I get to the line, get all of the information, then close my eyes and guess,” Wade joked. “Nah, I’m expected to make calls, but sometimes the quarterback steps in, maybe he can see things better. And when I’m not perfect, sometimes I can miss things. But it’s usually the quarterback or myself making the calls.”

Wade, who was listed as probable on Wednesday’s injury report with a sore ankle, was taken off the list Thursday along with tight end/long snapper Dave Moore (rib) and cornerback Torrie Cox (hip).

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said he would wait until game time to make a decision on the team’s starting left guard, be it Dan Buenning or Sean Mahan.

Buenning started the Cincinnati game, but has been banged up with hip and ankle problems. Mahan started the Ravens game at left guard, then played right guard for three games until Davin Joseph replaced him in the line up.

Gruden is looking for the right combination.

“We want to have good players,” said Gruden. “We want to have the best line in the league. That’s our goal, not to have depth. We want to try and get five guys that are great football players and can help us dominate and win games.’

Newly signed cornerback Phillip Buchanon could see some time returning punts against the Eagles on Sunday.

“You bet there’s a chance,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Buchanon returning punts Sunday. “We’ve got to teach him which way to go. I just say, ‘Go forward.’”

Cornerback Brian Kelly (toe) was held out of practice on Thursday. He remains questionable on the injury report. Juran Bolden (hip), who returned to practice on Thursday, could start in Kelly’s place if he can’t play Sunday.

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