TAMPA — When the Bucs lost 56-14 in Atlanta last season, it marked the lowest point in a difficult 2-14 year for Tampa Bay. Also, oddly, it served as a job interview of sorts.
On Sunday, as the Bucs return to the scene of the greatest scoring deficit at any point in franchise history — down 56 points — they do so with Dirk Koetter as their offensive coordinator, the same man whose offense clicked so well for the Falcons on that dominating Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.
"Whenever a guy is able to put 59 points on you … you have to be pretty excited about bringing him on board," Lovie Smith said in January, the game so lopsided in his mind that he gave the Falcons an extra field goal in his recollection.
Koetter, 56, working with a rookie quarterback in Jameis Winston and an offensive cast limited by injuries, has taken a major step forward. The Bucs have scored 23 or more points four times in six games — last year, they did so three times all season.
The Bucs have the NFL's No. 4 rushing offense, averaging 133 yards per game behind a resurgent Doug Martin. Winston, hampered by seven turnovers in his first four games, has none in the past two, so it's easy to find praise for Koetter on both sides of Sunday's game.
"Dirk is a great football coach, and I learned a ton from him during the three years that I got to play for him," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said this week. "He's great with quarterbacks. He knows how to get the best out of you and I feel like I'm a much better player now for having spent that time with him."
For all the offensive success the Bucs have enjoyed, the talk this week was the yard they couldn't pick up — a third-and-goal play from the 1-yard line — that would have given them a two-score lead on the Redskins late in the fourth quarter.
Koetter was unequivocal in taking full blame ("I screwed it up. Nobody else.") for the call that led to a 2-yard loss. The Bucs settled for a field goal and the Redskins scored the go-ahead touchdown with 24 seconds left and win it 31-30
The added value Koetter brings this week is his knowledge of Atlanta's personnel — the Falcons have a new coach and new schemes, but his understanding of players' strengths and vulnerabilities can help both sides of the ball.
"He has been very helpful for us preparing for their offense with their personnel," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It's a different scheme, but he knows the personnel. He knows a lot about Matt Ryan and his mind-set, so it's been helpful."
If there's a previous game Koetter has thought about this week, it isn't either side of the 56-14 drubbing last season, but rather the Washington game that got away.
"I will remember this Washington game for the rest of my life," he said. "You remember things that you mess up way more than you remember your greatest victories, I think anyway. So that game last year, I don't think about it at all. There's been a little talk about it, but not by me. You would have to ask other people more about it."
The Bucs played Atlanta much closer in their second meeting last season, leading in the fourth quarter before giving up the final 11 points in a 27-17 loss. Tampa Bay is a touchdown underdog, but Atlanta's players know they have Koetter working against them this time around.
"Dirk is an unbelievable offensive coordinator," Falcons receiver Julio Jones said. "He had a good scheme — great schemes — the way he prepared us, everything. And it's going to be a challenge this week, too, for our defense."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.