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Bucs’ youthful resolve to be tested vs. upstart Falcons

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off a devastating loss at Washington, having blown a 24-0 lead in a 31-30 loss to the Redskins. At 2-4 and facing the 6-1 Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, this is a crossroads for coach Lovie Smith and his team.

So much good is happening for the Bucs, starting with the maturation of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, who had his second straight turnover-free game last Sunday while throwing for 298 yards and two touchdowns.

“(He) played his best game, did a nice job, didn’t turn the ball over, made good decisions, got the ball out of his hand, got the ball out of his hand early,” Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “The double move to Mike (Evans), the timing – if you watch that on tape when he lets that go, where Mike is – I mean fantastic. Jameis did a really nice job.”

Meanwhile, running back Doug Martin had his third straight 100-yard rushing game behind an offensive line that gets better each week with rookie tackle Donovan Smith and rookie guard Ali Marpet.

But defensively, the Bucs are a mess. They have had five different combinations in the secondary this season, which still is susceptible to the slant route in the red zone.

Smith is calling the defensive plays this season and the Bucs are next to last in quarterback rating allowed and 31st in points allowed at nearly 30 per game.

The Falcons are loaded on offense, from quarterback Matt Ryan to receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.

A year ago, the Falcons handed Smith and his team their worst beating, a 56-14 win at the Georgia Dome.

The offensive coordinator that day for the Falcons was Dirk Koetter. The Bucs have him now, and Koetter may be a help to the defensive staff in breaking down the weaknesses of the Falcons’ offensive personnel.

“We remember what happened,” Smith said. “It’s a division opponent we have a history with. Yes, we do remember what happened up there last time. That should bring out the best in us. When you have the type of game we had up there, you can’t wait to go back to the same environment and see different results. We played them a lot better the second time around, but we didn’t beat them.

“Again, the best way to get a bad taste out of our mouths is to get another division road win and we’ll all feel a lot better.”

Credit new Atlanta coach Dan Quinn for bringing some aggressiveness and belief to the Falcons, especially on defense.

“I certainly have (been pleased),” Quinn said. “The biggest thing, I think, is when you see how tight this team has become, the connection that they have for one another. For me, most of the good teams that I’ve been a part of, they have that connection, just knowing they’re just going to play as hard as they can for one another. That part, from the players and coaches connecting, I’ve been really pleased with so far.”

SERIES HISTORY: 44th regular-season meeting. The Falcons lead the series 22-21. Atlanta swept the two games last season, including a 56-14 win at the Georgia Dome.

GAME PLAN: The Falcons have a new leader in coach Dan Quinn, who has brought the attitude of the Seahawks’ defense with him to Atlanta. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the same talent.

The Falcons will sell out against the run and try to make rookie QB Jameis Winston beat them. He proved more than up to that challenge the past two weeks and is coming off his best day as a pro with 298 yards passing and two touchdowns.

The Bucs are getting their share of eight- and nine-man fronts with the running of Doug Martin and Charles Sims.

“I think any time you’re facing a back that has the ability to break tackles and cut, that’s when you’re a factor,” Quinn said. “And man, does Doug have that. It’s the strength that he plays with, the feet that go on contact. Sometimes in a runner, when you get to the contact, it happens and he goes down. This is just the opposite, where the feet are going and they’re alive on contact.

“Man, do we have a lot of respect for him. You really have to have your tackling down when you’re playing a back like Doug, because not only can he get his feet going on contact, but he’s got enough explosiveness to make a jump cut to make you miss. So when you have those two combinations, which (Falcons running back Davonta Freeman) does as well, it’s a real challenge as a tackler.”

Where the Bucs have struggled is in the secondary, and Julio Jones awaits. Putting pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan is a must. The Bucs had only one sack of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins last week, but the defense has scored a touchdown in each the past two games.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

–Bucs WR Mike Evans vs. Falcons CB Desmond Trufant. Evans had a breakout game at Washington last week and will be the primary target with Vincent Jackson likely out with a knee injury. Trufant is quicker than Evans with great ball skills.

–Bucs LT Donovan Smith vs. Falcons DE Vic Beasley. Smith is improving weekly but faces a tough challenge in Beasley, who has two sacks but none in the past four games.


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