These are difficult times for the Bucs.

For Simeon Rice, too.

The sacks have disappeared. The splash plays have been reduced to mere ripples. The regining NFC South title holders, who once feasted on his passion, are starving for one of his dynamic days.

Now, the boo birds are calling him out.

And you can’t blame them.

They are pointing fingers to the spot where he commonly drags down a quarterback in mid-throw and they are asking: “Yo, what’s up?”

You can’t blame them about that too.

Rice says they have that right and he won’t run from the criticism.

“I accept that, I understand that,” he said. “I’m the guy they point to and that’s fine. I also know what I’m about. My game hasn’t changed that much. I’m still the same player I was last year. Even better. I’m just as dominant, but I haven’t dominated.”

Due to make $6 million in base this year, and an astronomical $7.24 million next season, Rice is the perfect target for fan abuse.

Heck, who really cares whether Torrie Cox or Will Allen or Jermaine Phillips or Phillip Buchanon can cover in the secondary? They don’t make Simeon Rice money.

Only Simeon Rice makes Simeon Rice money.

With only two sacks this season, the man who entered the year with 119 career sacks, second only to Michael Strahan on the active list, has seen his statistical production slip like a pebble on the backside of Mt. Everest.
He’s aware of the numbers. He’s aware of the only remedy.

“Performance answers all the questions,” he said. “It makes people forget the past. It’s the selling point. It’s going to reflect my energy, my passion. So far, I haven’t properly reflected my energy … This is my first time in this kind of zone and it’s tough.”

We need to know why.

Perhaps part of it is his bad left shoulder, a wing critical to the penetration and effectiveness of a right defensive end.

No left shoulder means no leverage. No leverage means no sacks.

Rice, 32, says he has played through the shoulder injury without much ado and refuses to let it be an excuse.

Perhaps part of it is that his offense, for want of a better term, has been pathetic. And a pathetic offense means opponents usually have the lead and rely on the run game.

More running downs mean fewer passing downs. Fewer passing downs mean fewer sacks.

But a big part of it, as it was in last Sunday’s humiliation at the hands of the Saints, is the three-step drop quarterbacks seem to be employing against the Bucs.

It’s the quick hit, he says. Over and over and over again.

“I’m going by them, but the ball isn’t there any more,” he said. “Let’s face it, they have figured it out. It’s the protocol of how to play us. That’s the style everyone is using against us now. With the style they are playing against us, it’s hard to dominate.”

Memo to the coaching staff, if the Eagles used it, if the Ravens used it, if the Giants and the Saints and the Falcons used it, then the Panthers, Redskins and Cowboys are likely to use it too.

But, that’s just me.

“That three-step drop is like kryptonite to our game,” Rice said. “Until we can make the quarterback squeeze the ball for another nano second, then not much is going to change. That nano second is where I make the difference.”

And how do you get that nano second? Is it pressure from up the middle as well as the flank? Is it tighter coverage in the secondary?

Rice will not punk any of his teammates or coaches. But it’s not out of order to ask whether it’s a coincidence that the two areas where the Bucs have struggled this season, the defensive line and the secondary, are the two areas where there are coaches new to the Bucs system.

The departure of former defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, how head coach of the Lions, and secondary coach Mike Tomlin, now defensive coordinator with the Vikings, must be having a toll.

“You can’t lose half your (defensive coaching) staff and pick up right where you left off the year before,” Rice said, choosing his words carefully.

He has a point.

And he makes this point as well, a defense that one year ago was the best in the NFL can’t all of a sudden be complete crud. Not with virtually the same players. Rice and that defense have earned the benefit of the doubt.

“I’m way too arrogant to let my game disintegrate in one year,” Rice said.

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