Buccaneers-Falcons Preview

Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston is on the way up as he enters his second NFL season.

It isn't quite as easy to pinpoint a direction for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.

Ryan and the Falcons are certainly mystery players entering the current season and their first chance to steer the compass in the positive direction comes Sunday when they host Winston and the Buccaneers.

Ryan is entering the fourth season of a five-year, $103.75 million contract that he received after taking the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game in 2012. But Atlanta is just 18-30 since he placed his signature on the huge deal and he hasn't come close to etching his name into the upper tier of NFL quarterbacks.

The 31-year-old Ryan has topped 4,000 yards in five consecutive seasons. But he is also coming off a campaign in which he threw the second-fewest touchdown passes (21) and second-most interceptions (16) of his eight-year career.

He is well aware he needs to cut down on the miscues and increase the big plays.

“We have to create some explosive plays,” Ryan said. “We are getting the ball down the field a little bit and that will help us out. We have to be a little bit more consistent. There is no question about that.”

But there are questions about Ryan — particularly whether or not the image of “Matty Ice” is beginning to melt away.

“What I need to do is do my job as best I can and not worry about what everyone else thinks about what you're getting paid,” Ryan said recently. “This is something that comes up for every quarterback. It doesn't matter. It doesn't affect the outcome of games. For me, the things that are important are the things that affect the outcome of games. That's what I focus on.”

While Ryan must regain his stature to help Atlanta improve last season's 8-8 record, Winston gets the opportunity to continue his development after passing for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns as a rookie.

Dirk Koetter meshed well with Winston last season and then was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach when the Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith after a 6-10 campaign.

Koetter continues to work closely with Winston and sees the quarterback fully entrenched as a team leader as well as a talented passer.

“He's definitely the leader of our football team now,” Koetter said. “A year ago, he was picking his spots. He was doing a good job of knowing his place as a rookie. But about halfway through that season, it became clear that he was the leader of our offense. Now, the players have voted him one of our five captains.”

Winston said he can see the strides he has made when it comes to the offensive system.

“I think it's just being more comfortable in the offense,” Winston said. “Actually, knowing the offense and not trying to learn the offense on a week-to-week basis. That's the main thing. When you're trying to process information and apply it to the field and execute it, that's always good.”

Winston has two solid receivers to work with in Mike Evans (74 receptions, 1,206 yards) and Vincent Jackson (33 catches while hampered with injuries). The Buccaneers also have a top-flight back in Doug Martin, who ranked second in the NFL with 1,402 rushing yards last season.

Defensively, offseason acquisitions like defensive end Robert Ayers (9 1/2 sacks with the New York Giants) and cornerback Brent Grimes (four interceptions with Miami) fortify a defense that features stellar defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (8.5 sacks).

Falcons receiver Julio Jones is bothered by an ankle injury but is expected to be ready. He is coming off a standout campaign of 136 receptions for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns.

Jones' yardage was just 93 yards shy of the record held by former Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson. The receptions are tied for second all time with Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and seven shy of the mark set by Pro Football Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts.

Atlanta added pass rusher Dwight Freeney (eight sacks with Arizona) in the offseason to bolster a unit led by standout cornerback Desmond Trufant.

The Buccaneers won both meetings last season, scoring 23 points on each occasion.