The Atlanta Falcons will welcome an NFC South rival to the Georgia Dome on Sunday when they kick off the 2016 season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Falcons will see some familiar faces across the field on Sunday. Atlanta’s former head coach, Mike Smith, is now Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator, and the Bucs’ new head coach, Dirk Koetter, was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator for some of Matt Ryan’s best seasons.
This gives the Buccaneers a bit of an advantage in preparing to face Atlanta, because these coaches are intimately familiar with this team and its players’ tendencies.
Tampa Bay finished the 2015 season 6-10, but the Bucs are looking to build upon a strong performance by Jameis Winston in his rookie season. He has the talent around him to take a step forward, too. Doug Martin and Charles Sims can get things going on the ground and Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are reliable receiving targets.
The Bucs also have a wealth of talent on defense. Gerald McCoy is one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the league, and Lavonte David is probably underrated as a linebacker because he’s been on a team that hasn’t won a ton of games in recent memory.
This offseason, the Bucs also added veteran cornerback Brent Grimes to shore up the secondary. Grimes is another familiar face for the Falcons — he started his career in Atlanta — and the four-time Pro Bowler adds a veteran presence in the defensive backfield.
The Falcons started last season strong, jumping out to a 6-1 record before hitting a six-game skid and finishing the season 8-8. The struggles can mostly be attributed to the offensive performance. Matt Ryan threw 16 interceptions and fumbled the ball four times in 2015, and the Falcons struggled mightily in the red zone in 2015.
Atlanta will be starting two rookies on Sunday against the Buccaneers, and Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell will have their work cut out for them against Tampa Bay’s offensive talent. The rookies add speed and athleticism to the Falcons defense that it was definitely missing.
They’ll be without a third rookie starter, however. First-rounder safety Keanu Neal is sidelined as he recovers from a minor knee scope. The depth in the secondary is a little sketchy for the Falcons. Kemal Ishmael is a reliable backup at strong safety, but Dashon Goldson is behind Ishmael on the depth chart, and he’s been hindered this week with a hamstring injury.
The Falcons have two solid cornerbacks, Robert Alford and particularly Desmond Trufant. Yet they’re lacking depth at the position with only four on the roster and Jalen Collins, a 2015 second-round pick, suspended four weeks for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances.
The best news for the Falcons heading into this week’s matchup is that Julio Jones is fully healthy and ready to go. Jones has been dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in preseason, but he was a full participant in practice on Thursday and Friday, and Dan Quinn said after practice that Julio will be 100 percent for Sunday’s game.
How to watch
When: 1 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Announcers: Sam Rosen, David Diehl
Online: NFL Mobile