TAMPA, Fla. — Well, this was unexpected. On paper, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be 2-0. On paper, they faced quarterbacks with little name recognition — backup Derek Anderson and back-to-the-backup Austin Davis — and the Bucs still lost to the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams at home. That’s not good.
On paper, the Bucs should lose to the Atlanta Falcons at 8:25 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome. Tampa Bay faces its first true star quarterback, Matt Ryan, in its first road test of the Lovie Smith era. Tampa Bay has won once at Atlanta since 2008. This doesn’t look promising after the shortcomings of Weeks 1 and 2.
If last Sunday was a must-win, what’s Thursday? A hope-for-the-best encounter?
This game marks the start of the Bucs’ most grueling stretch of the season, with tough tests to come against the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens in the month ahead. An early slide can become a long, painful tumble if Tampa Bay doesn’t earn its first victory as soon as possible.
That won’t be easy, of course. There are injury concerns, mainly with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s broken left hand. He was fitted with a cast Tuesday, and he’s expected to be a game-time decision. Even if McCoy does play, the Bucs’ defense must preserve hopes of keeping the score close, because Tampa Bay’s offense struggled throughout the first two games.
"We haven’t played our best ball," Smith said. "Here’s a chance for a lot of people to kind of go and just look at what they see from us. So we need to play well. We lost a division home game and we need to steal one."
Here’s a closer look at the Bucs’ Week 3 matchup against the Falcons …
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Tampa Bay’s wide receivers vs. Atlanta’s secondary
The Bucs’ top passing threats can’t be silent on this night. The Falcons’ secondary is vulnerable, and Josh McCown must keep the Bucs in position to win within a hostile setting for his first road test as Tampa Bay’s quarterback. However, the Bucs showed little throughout the first two weeks to suggest they’ll produce with efficiency. It’s hard to see them stealing this game if they play no better than they did in the opening weeks. McCown and other offensive weapons must show more.
Falcons: Atlanta’s passing game stands as the league’s most formidable, with an average of 329 yards through the air in games against the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals. Ryan was dynamic against the Saints, throwing for 448 yards with three touchdowns. He had less success against Cincinnati in being limited to 231 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. The Bengals’ approach against Ryan should be a model for the Bucs, who will look to make the veteran signal-caller uncomfortable and force multiple bad throws.
Buccaneers: Running back Bobby Rainey had success against the Rams’ defensive front last Sunday, rushing for 144 yards on 22 carries, a performance that included a long run of 31 yards. Presumably, Doug Martin will play Thursday after limited participation in practice Tuesday as he continues to recover from a knee injury. But even if Martin serves as the Bucs’ bell cow in the backfield, Rainey must produce to give Tampa Bay a strong rushing threat. It’s hard to see the Bucs beating the Falcons without a healthy running game.
Falcons: Atlanta’s defense has been a weakness through two weeks. The Falcons allowed 34 points in a Week 1 victory over the Saints and 24 last Sunday in a loss to the Bengals. With an average of 29 points allowed through two games, the Falcons rank 27th in the league in scoring defense. Meanwhile, they’re last in the league in yards allowed by surrendering 472 per game. There will be openings for Tampa Bay’s offense if the Bucs can exploit vulnerabilities.
Buccaneers: McCown’s decision-making has become a concern after two games. After throwing just one interception in 224 pass attempts last year with the Chicago Bears, he has three after 56 throws this season. Not only are the interceptions concerning, but the matter in which they occur are worrisome too. McCown often looks rushed and scattered when making poor decisions, and the turnover at the Rams’ 2-yard line last Sunday was particularly damaging. It’s critical for him to be wise and not place the Bucs in compromising positions. There will be little room for error in his first road test.
DID YOU KNOW?
Since 2011, the Bucs and Falcons have split their last six games after Atlanta won five consecutive meetings from December 2008 to December 2010.
"It’s not a club. Today, of course, he had his thumb out, so we’ll see. Eventually, that’s what he’ll end up playing with, with some protection while being able to use all of your fingers."— Smith, when discussing McCoy’s cast Tuesday. Even if McCoy can’t play Thursday, he’s expected to return sometime this season.
"Those turnovers, they come in bunches. We got one on Sunday, so we’re hoping we’re getting ready to get it rolling now. We want to get it going. We got our first one and let’s see them start coming now." — Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, when discussing the Bucs’ defensive pursuit Tuesday. The Bucs have forced one turnover in their first two games.
"Just the snafus and decision-making, you can’t turn the ball over. Whether he’s pressing or he starts out on fire and thinks he can complete every pass, again, we just can’t have those happen, especially when we get that tight in the red zone."— Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, when discussing McCown’s play through the first two games Tuesday. McCown has completed 38 of 56 passes for 362 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
"I think for me, especially those kind of mistakes, particularly the first pick in the first game and then this one in the last game, those are things that I look back on the tape last year and it’s not there, it’s not something that I was doing. That’s what’s frustrating to me and it’s more of just taking a look at those things ‘What was I thinking?’"— McCown, when discussing his poor decision-making in his first two starts Tuesday. Only Eli Manning and Matt Cassel have more interceptions with four apiece.
The Bucs play at the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1 p.m. Sept. 28. Tampa Bay is 1-8 all-time against Pittsburgh, the lone victory coming at Tampa in December 1998.