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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pregame Report: Battle of the Backs

Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Atlanta's Devonta Freeman will look to follow up on outstanding 2015 seasons in a game that features two of the NFL's best running backs.

A look back at all of the matchups between the Buccaneers and the Falcons.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday to open the 2016 season, and there are endless potential storylines jostling for prominence.

Dirk Koetter will be on the sideline for his first real game as an NFL head coach, coincidentally back where he was quite recently the Falcons' offensive coordinator. Koetter's defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, also happens to be the Falcons' last head coach. Dan Quinn, Smith's replacement, is starting his second season and continuing his rebuild of Atlanta's defense. The Bucs' Jameis Winston is looking to start his second season on a high note after a superb rookie season. Julio Jones might break the NFL's single-season receptions record. Atlanta is saying farewell to the Georgia Dome this year. And so on.

In the end, though, the game may come down to the oldest story in football: Who can run the ball better.

The home team has Devonta Freeman, Winston's old Florida State teammate, who was a breakout star in 2015 as he tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdowns. The visitors have Doug Martin, who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last year and averaged 4.9 yards per carry before getting a big new contract in the offseason. Both teams have high hopes for their offensive lines after years of struggles in that regard. Expect both teams to make a great effort to get their star tailbacks in gear on Sunday afternoon.

"Doug's a marquee play in this league – he was number two in the league in rushing last year – and he hardly ever gets talked about because there are other guys on our team that get talked about," said Koetter. "I know Doug is chomping at the bit to get out there and get after it and show that he is one of the best players and running backs in the league. I've said many times – we're a run-first football team and we're going to feature Doug Martin.

"Devonta Freeman is a really, really good football player. He runs like Doug Martin but he catches like Charles Sims. He's a combination of the two. They split him out, they can run him deep, he's running slant routes, they screen to him. I think the system they run on offense – it's an outside-zone base system – I think he fits that system great. He's a slasher, he can go under tackles, through tackles. This is a matchup of some really good running backs in this game."

The Buccaneers actually had a more robust overall rushing attack last year than the Falcons, ranking fifth in the NFL with 135.1 yards per game and second with 4.75 yards per carry. Having Sims to complement Martin had a lot to do with that success in the ground game. Atlanta finished 19th and 25th in those two carries despite Freeman's breakout year; the Falcons could look to get running back Tevin Coleman more involved this year to have a 1-2 punch similar to the Buccaneers. From Tampa Bay's standpoint, another great season from Martin and Sims would give Winston a better shot to continue his development.

"I have very high expectations for Jameis, probably not as high as he has for himself," said Koetter. "As far as him being the leader of our offense, a leader of our team, that's a no-brainer. He's there. Jameis's job on game day is to go out and find a way for us to win, find a way for us to move the ball. We expect Jameis to be a game manager when you need to be a game manager, be a playmaker when you need to be a playmaker. That's what great quarterbacks do, they find a way to win."

Since it's the season opener, it's not surprising that Winston will have his full array of targets at his disposal, including tight end Luke Stocker, who was cleared to play despite being questionable on Friday's injury report. The only Buccaneer who was ruled out due to injury to start the season is rookie linebacker Devante Bond. Bond was one of the team's seven game-day inactives, along with QB Ryan Griffin, S Ryan Smith, T Leonard Wester, DE Channing Ward, DT Caleb Benenoch and G Caleb Benenoch. Other than Griffin, those deactivated players have one very notable thing in common: They are all rookies.

Atlanta has a similarly healthy roster. The Falcons' seven inactives were WR Taylor Gabriel, S Keanu Neal, RB Terron Ward, G Mike Person, G Wes Schweitzer, DT Ra'Shede Hageman and TE Joshua Perkins. Only Neal was out due to injury.

Thanks to that healthy roster, the Buccaneers were not required to make any changes to their starting lineup on Sunday. They do have two positions at which the starting spot is essentially shared, as Cameron Brate and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are co-inhabitants of one tight end spot while Alterraun Verner and Vernon Hargreaves are sharing a cornerback spot. Essentially, that just means that all four of those Buccaneers are going to play extensively, based on specific packages. Still, the rookie Hargreaves is going to have a full plate in his first regular-season game.

"Vernon's going to be out there every play," said Koetter. "He's going to be starting in both base and sub defense and he's going against one of, if not the, best receivers in the league. He's getting thrown right in there right from the get-go."

Hargreaves has made steady progress since the Buccaneers took him with the 11th-overall pick in the draft in April. As it turned out, he simply couldn't be denied a spot in the starting lineup. He's ready for his 2016 debut, as are the Buccaneers as a whole.

"Let's play," said Koetter. "The build-up, you can go forever. You can go clear back to when the schedule comes out. You go through all the offseason stuff, the preseason, the cutdowns – it's time to play. We're excited to play a game and see how we do."

The Buccaneers take on the Falcons in the 2016 regular season opener on Sunday afternoon, with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET in the Georgia Dome. The game will be broadcast locally by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.

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