TAMPA — From his new spot at safety, Ronde Barber has a bird's-eye view of the Falcons' three-headed passing attack. But no matter the vantage point, the Bucs' 16-year veteran is impressed.
Julio Jones has the speed and length to go deep. Roddy White runs precise routes and always seems to be open. Ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez is too physical for most defensive backs and too fast for most linebackers.
It's a given quarterback Matt Ryan will test the Bucs' last-ranked pass defense Sunday, and Barber expects feathers to fly.
"They're the best in the league, all three of them; numbers-wise and just skill sets," Barber said. "They've got a quarterback who gets them the ball. The guy is efficient. I look at it as our biggest challenge yet; not only because it's our next one, but because they're really good."
The Bucs have given up 47 pass plays of 20 yards or more and are allowing 312.6 passing yards per game. Since trading up to draft Jones in 2011, the Falcons have become air-centric, throwing the ball 63 percent of the time.
"We're going to have to put pressure on the quarterback," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "I think the perimeter pass coverage is getting better. Now we're going up in class, for sure. It's going to be some challenge."
White, 31, who has been named to four consecutive Pro Bowls, was second in the league in receiving yards with 1,389 in 2010. Jones, 23, is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound beast. Gonzalez, 36, needs 12 yards to be the first tight end with 14,000.
They ride the Ryan Express. The quarterback has a league-high 3,072 passing yards.
"He has the ability to throw the ball into coverage," Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "He doesn't get spooked out of trying to put the ball on the spot even if you might think you have it pretty well covered. He's very confident in his arm strength.
"In addition to that, they never shy away from throwing the ball down the field, no matter what coverage you're in. You could take your corner and have him run straight back. They think their guys can just go up and get it, and they do."
Three factors give the Bucs' pass defense hope.
First, it's coming off one of its best games pressuring the quarterback. Helping matters is Ryan, while athletic, wants to stay in the pocket.
Second, Ryan is human, throwing five interceptions Sunday (several tipped at the line of scrimmage). "Not a good day offensively and for me, specifically," Ryan said. "It's something that as an offense and as a team we talk about it all the time trying to win the turnover differential and protecting the football on offense. And we did a really poor job with that last week, myself specifically. But you have to move on and go forward."
Finally, for all their youth and inexperience, the Bucs have a sticky-fingered secondary, even without cornerback Aqib Talib (traded) and Eric Wright (slowed by an Achilles injury). Barber and undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson have three interceptions, and the Bucs' plus-nine turnover margin is sixth in the league.
"A lot of these guys have an uncanny ability to forget about the yardage and just go out and do their job on the next play," Barber said. "So they're always competing. It's just a new breed of player. You know teams are going to throw the ball all over the yard, so you're going to get some opportunities. Take advantage of them when they come, and we've done that."