When the Buccaneers defeated the Falcons in Atlanta on September 11, it pushed Tampa Bay into sole possession of first place in the NFC South, as Carolina and New Orleans also tasted defeat in Week One. Of course, "first place" is a tenuous concept after a single week of play, and sure enough the Buccaneers' division has been shaken up considerably since then.
As Tampa Bay and Atlanta get together again in Week Nine, this time on the Buccaneers' home turf and in front of a national Thursday night audience, it's the Falcons who are alone at the top of the division. With a 5-3 record, Atlanta holds a 1.5-game edge on the Buccaneers and Saints, both 3-4. However, at 2-0, the Bucs are the only team in the South with a still-unblemished record in divisional play.
LISTEN LIVE: BUCCANEERS VS. FALCONS
"There are different circumstances when you play a team six or seven weeks later, but from an overall team [standpoint], we beat Atlanta three times in a row now, twice on their home field," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Atlanta's one of the hottest teams in the league right now, they're playing with a lot of confidence. Our guys, on the other hand, need to get a bad taste out of their mouths. Should be a great game."
Atlanta has won five of seven since that Week One loss largely on the strength of Matt Ryan and the NFL's highest-scoring offense. The Buccaneers had rebounded from a 1-3 start with consecutive road wins in Carolina and San Francisco before a see-saw overtime loss to Oakland on Sunday halted that momentum. As Koetter noted, there wasn't much time for Buccaneer players to dwell on that defeat because their prep time for the Falcons was compressed by a short work week.
Pictures of the Buccaneers arriving at Raymond James Stadium for the Thursday Night Football match-up against the Falcons.
"It's an unusual week and every team in the league has to do it at least once," said Koetter. "In this case, coming off a hard-fought, emotional game, maybe it's the best thing for us."
One of the circumstances that is significantly different for the Buccaneers two months after that win in Atlanta is the state of their offensive backfield. Doug Martin and Charles Sims combined for 137 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in that victory, but neither is available for the rematch. In addition, superb fill-in Jacquizz Rodgers, who racked up more than 300 rushing yards in three starts with the Buccaneers, is now out with a foot injury. Former Bucs draftee Mike James was re-signed on Tuesday to help bolster that thin backfield.
"Jacquizz will be out tonight, so we'll be going with three running backs," said Koetter. "We'll be 'running back by committee' tonight – Peyton Barber, Antone Smith and Mike James will all be rotating in there.
"It alters [the game plan] somewhat. Based on who you have playing, it's always going to change it a little bit. But you still have to attack Atlanta's defense the way that we game-planned it. Obviously, with guys who are somewhat new to our program here, we've got to temper it a little bit with what they can do."
On defense, Tampa Bay's equally banged-up defensive line welcomed Gerald McCoy back in Week Seven and Robert Ayers back on Sunday. The team had hoped that Clinton McDonald would also come off the injury list for Thursday's game, but he will miss at least one more contest. McCoy is the Bucs' strongest interior-line force, of course, and Ayers plays on both the edge and in the middle, so they will be a key component of the Bucs' defensive plan on Thursday.
"Your guys are your guys," said Koetter. "The guys that we've got are going to play. I think Akeem Spence is getting better, especially versus the run. Where we need a little help is in the pass-rush area. Until you get to third down, most of their passing is going to come off play-action and bootlegs, so it's not a straight rush situation as much as it was against Oakland last week."
The Bucs had a seven-point lead with two minutes to play against the Raiders on Sunday but couldn't hold on. With nearly an entire extra quarter to play, most of it with Oakland's offense on the field, the final numbers from the game were eye-opening. Facing another offense that's currently operating in high gear, the Buccaneers are confident they can get better results on Thursday if they can fare better in a few fundamental areas.
"We need to do a better job of tackling and taking great angles, pursuing," said Koetter. "Matt Ryan and [Oakland's] Derek Carr are two of the hottest quarterbacks in the league right now. In both cases, they're going to get the ball out quick. We need to have pressure up the middle. In Matt's case, like Carr, they're not going to go to the outside as much, they're going to try to step up into the pocket. So we've got to be firm in the middle of the pocket and overall we've got to tackle better."
In addition to Martin, McDonald and Rodgers, the Buccaneers declared the following players inactive for Thursday night's game: QB Ryan Griffin, T Leonard Wester, WR Russell Shepard and G Caleb Benenoch. Shepard is out due to injury. The Falcons inactives are Coleman, Freeney, Tamme, S Sharrod Neasman, CB C.J. Goodwin, G Wes Schweitzer and DT Ra'Shede Hagemen.
The Buccaneers take on the Falcons in front of a national audience on Thursday, with kickoff scheduled for 8:25 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast nationally by NFL Network, in Tampa and Atlanta on NBC and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.