The scoreboard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium figures to get a workout Sunday in the matchup between NFC South rivals. Tampa Bay (2-2) has surrendered more points per game than any team in the league (34.75), while the Falcons (1-4) are right on their heels with an average of 32.6.
The Bucs’ defensive woes have put the heat on coordinator Mike Smith, a former head coach of the Falcons. Smith’s boss, Dirk Koetter, has resisted calls to make a change.
“Every week, every game, it’s way bigger than any one guy,” the Tampa Bay coach said. “It’s never all one person’s fault and it’s never all one person’s credit.”
Smith said he’s confident the Bucs can turn things around.
“We did some things in the first three games that you can look forward and say, ‘Gosh darn, those guys, they’ve got a chance to do some things well,'” Smith said. “We’ve been an inconsistent group and really that’s frustrating as a coach because you don’t like to put the inconsistencies out on the field.”
The Falcons are on the defensive about their defense, as well. For the first time since 1987, Atlanta has given up at least 37 points in three straight games.
It would be easy to point to a rash of injuries to key players. Safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are both out for the season, linebacker Deion Jones will miss at least eight games, and tackle Grady Jarrett sat out last week’s contest with a sprained ankle.
“We will never make excuses,” defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “We are professionals. We’re asking the guys to dominate their gap and their job. I think any man that puts on a helmet should be able to do that, what we’re asking them to do. With the ability that you have, if you give us the maximum, we know that’s just enough.”
Tampa Bay will be looking to strike quickly. Each of the last three weeks, the Falcons have surrendered long touchdown drives on their opponents’ first possession.
“They’ve been marching it down on us pretty easy,” defensive end Takk McKinley moaned.
Some other things to watch for when the Falcons host the Buccaneers:
Quarterback Jameis Winston will get his first start of the season for the Bucs.
He served a three-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy and came off the bench in Tampa Bay’s last game. After a bye week, the No. 1 job again belongs to Winston.
Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in three straight games while Winston was sidelined, but the “FitzMagic” show came to a crashing halt in a 48-10 loss to Chicago.
Nevertheless, Koetter praised his team for staying competitive while its starting QB was out.
“We’re not exactly where we want to be,” the coach said, “but we’re also right where we need to be as far as competing for the next 12 weeks.”
The Falcons are at their best when there’s not much discrepancy between the number of running and passing plays.
In their lone victory, a 31-24 triumph over the Carolina Panthers in Week 2, the Falcons ran 32 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns while completing 23 of 28 passes for 272 yards and two more scores. But in last Sunday’s blowout loss to the Steelers , Atlanta ran just 19 times for 62 yards and went to the air 45 times.
“That’s part of our identity on offense,” coach Dan Quinn said. “We’ve got to make sure the run game and the play-action pass go hand in hand. That is always at the top of our thinking. When we do that, we’re at our best.”
Atlanta has given up blocked punts in two of the last three games, leading to a pair of short touchdown drives.
Both miscues were simply a matter of blockers getting beaten: Eric Saubert on one play, rookie Foyesade Oluokun on the other.
“It is 100 percent unacceptable for that to happen,” Quinn said. “We’d like to get that squared away so it never rears its head again.”
BUCS DOWN WITH JPP
Jason Pierre-Paul, who was acquired in a trade with the Giants , has been a force on Tampa Bay’s defensive line. Over his past three games, he has four sacks and caused a fumble.
Now, he’s going against an Atlanta line that gave up six sacks to the Steelers last weekend.
“Jason is such a competitive guy,” Smith said. “We want to have a rotation and it’s hard to get him off the field because he wants to play every snap.”
The Falcons are off to their worst start since 2013 .
“We didn’t expect to be here,” Quinn said. “But we don’t expect to stay here, either.”
The last time Atlanta began a season 1-5 was 2007, a dismal campaign marred by the downfall of franchise quarterback Michael Vick, who went to prison for dogfighting, and coach Bobby Petrino abandoning the team after only 13 games.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall contributed to this report.
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