TAMPA, Fla. -- When Tampa Bay opened the season with a 31-24 road victory over the Atlanta Falcons, it was a promising start to Dirk Koetter's head coaching career against a team he and Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith coached together.
But as the rematch approaches Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, much has changed as the Buccaneers find themselves considerably short-handed as they try to stop a Falcons' offense that has established itself as the NFL's best.
"I think they're playing with more confidence, and you would expect that: They won some big games," Koetter said.
The Falcons (5-3) have the NFC South lead and quarterback Matt Ryan leads the NFL in touchdown passes (19) and passing yards (2,636), having thrown scoring passes to an NFL-best 10 different players. The biggest challenge will be containing receiver Julio Jones, who went off for 300 yards in a victory against Carolina this season, but the Buccaneers held him to 66 yards in the first meeting. Jones has been slowed by a knee injury, but the Bucs fully expect to face him.
"Julio Jones is going to play," said Smith, his coach in Atlanta until last year. "He is obviously one of the top three receivers in the league. There's no doubt about that. Maybe No. 1. I think he's probably one of the toughest guys to defend."
The Bucs won't have nearly the same offensive lineup they had around quarterback Jameis Winston in the first meeting. Doug Martin and Charles Sims, the team's top two running backs, are injured as is No. 2 receiver Vincent Jackson, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who caught a 30-yard touchdown against the Falcons, has since been arrested on a DUI charge and waived.
As if losing their top two backs wasn't enough, the Bucs are expected to be without former Falcons back Jacquizz Rodgers, who had filled in admirably with back-to-back 100-yard games before getting injured Sunday in a loss to the Raiders.
Now the Bucs move forward with three backs all signed off the street since the start of the season -- former Falcons back Antone Smith, who has never had more than four carries in a game; rookie Peyton Barber, who played only three offensive snaps in Sunday's loss; and Mike James, who was signed Tuesday after being waived-injured by the Bucs in Week 1, days before the first Falcons game.
The quick turnaround to a Thursday game is tough enough, but the Bucs are coming off an overtime loss to Oakland that saw their defense on the field for 94 snaps. The Raiders piled up 626 yards of total offense, including a franchise-record 512 passing by Derek Carr, whose fourth touchdown won the game late in overtime.
Atlanta, too, had their game Sunday come down to the wire as Mohamed Sanu caught the game-winning touchdown in a win over the Packers, so both teams will be physically spent entering the game.
"Our last three weeks, all the games have come right down to the end," coach Dan Quinn said Tuesday. "We had some disappointing finishes where we thought we had a chance to finish and we didn't, then in this game where we did. We're glad we had another opportunity to try to finish ... we've got work to do, but we're pleased we were able to finish it this past one."
If the Bucs (3-4) win, they'll have the season sweep of the Falcons and be a half-game out of first and even in losses with the Falcons. They'll need to play much better defensively than they did against Oakland, while facing the NFL's top passer, but Tampa Bay has won three straight against Atlanta -- all since Winston took over as quarterback last season.
Both teams will enjoy the longer break after Thursday's game with the Bucs staying home to face the Bears in Week 10, while the Falcons go to the Eagles next weekend before finally getting their open date.