Mike Gandy has been better than expected as the Buffalo Bills' starting left tackle. If there are lingering doubts about him, he could put them to rest this Sunday in Tampa Bay.
Lining up in front of Gandy will be Buccaneers defensive end Simeon Rice, one of the NFL's premier pass rushers.
A 10th-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl selection, Rice is coming off his fourth consecutive double-digit sack (12) season. His 106 career sacks rank second to Michael Strahan of the New York Giants among active NFL players and Rice's 43-plus sacks over the past three seasons are more than any other player in the league during that span. He has averaged 13.4 sacks in four seasons with the Buccaneers and his career average of 11.7 sacks per season is tops in the NFL.
Rice is a gifted athlete with exceptional quickness off the snap of the ball, which will be an additional concern for the Bills if their offensive line doesn't adjust to the noise inside Raymond James Stadium.
Rice possesses the speed to get up field, but also excels at countermoves that allow him to beat blockers inside. He is not a one-trick pony either. He has improved his play against the run over the last couple of years. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he's big enough to take on bigger linemen at the point of attack.
"He's very good," said Bills coach Mike Mularkey. "His specialty is pass rushing off the edge. He gets off the snap extremely well. Being on the road and the crowd noise, it's important that Mike Gandy gets off. We're very aware of him and we'll do whatever we have to to handle him in the passing game, because he's a very good player."
The Bills probably will give Gandy some help by lining up a tight end on the left side or chipping Rice with a running back. But there will be times when he will have to go one on one against Rice.
"Any time you get athletic ability mixed with size and strength, that's tough for anyone," Gandy said. "He's also got a lot of experience. All around, whether you're running or passing, he's a tough opponent, so it's going to be a war."
Gandy has already put a muzzle on Green Bay pass-rushing ace Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and pitched a shutout against Houston's rushers during the Bills' 22-7 season-opening win.
This will undoubtedly be Gandy's biggest test to date, but he is unfazed by it.
"I've played him before, so I kind of know what to expect," said Gandy, who faced Rice twice when he played in Chicago. "It's going to be a battle out there, but it's like that every week. It doesn't matter who I am playing against. I just go out there, play my game and do the best that I can to help my team win."
The Bills don't have any complaints. Since signing him as a free agent this past spring, the Bills have liked everything they have seen from the 6-4, 310-pound Gandy.
"He's done an outstanding job for us," said offensive line coach Jim McNally. "Last week I think he may have had one mental mistake on a play, but it was no big deal. He's an outstanding athlete. He can take a wrong move or a wrong step and recover from it because he has such impressive quickness.
"He's done everything we've asked of him. All those prognosticators have said this, that and the other about him. But we're real pleased with him."
McNally thinks all the questions about Gandy's worthiness as a starting left tackle have been a major source of motivation for him.
"He's kind of a quiet guy, so he won't say it, but I think he wants to show people that he's a good football player," McNally said. "I'm sure he's proud of his accomplishments and we're certainly proud of him."
The spotlight will be on Gandy all season no matter how he fares against Rice. That's the nature of playing left tackle, whose success or failure often determines if a quarterback gets time to throw or gets out of a game in one piece.
However, Gandy downplays the significance of being the protector of quarterback J.P. Losman's blindside.
"I've played positions all along the line, so I don't really see playing left tackle as any more important than any other position on the line," Gandy said. "If you play guard and get beat it's a sack and if you play tackle and get beat it's a sack. All I'm concerned about is playing to the best of my ability and hopefully that's enough to get the job done."