ATLANTA — Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith liked the 31-24 win here Sunday for the pragmatic reasons — on the road, in the division, starting the season off right.
His players were thrilled because it came against the team Smith coached for seven seasons.
"Coach Smith loves it, man," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said in the locker room after the win. "He and Coach (Dirk) Koetter. We knew. We talked in the locker room: This is a huge deal. Going back there, you have to get a huge win. I'm happy we were able to do it for him."
McCoy said he saw a fire in Smith's eyes this week, and the Bucs carried the extra motivation of giving him a win in a familiar place — head coach Dirk Koetter was Smith's offensive coordinator from 2012-14, but beat Atlanta twice last season as the Bucs' offensive coordinator.
"He might not say it, but it means a lot to him to come back here, first game of the season and get a win," said cornerback Brent Grimes, who played for Smith in Atlanta as well. "He coached a great game, made some great calls, and while he didn't say it, I know he's happy about it,"
Matt Ryan threw for 334 yards and two touchdowns, rallying Atlanta from 18 points down late in the third quarter to have the ball with a chance to tie. But the defense got that last stop to clinch the win, and Smith likes when players can learn from their mistakes in a win.
"It wasn't pretty. We made lots of mistakes," Smith said. "But they did not quit. It was fun to watch them go play. We have a lot of things we have to get fixed. After a win, you can get those corrections made."
If anyone knows what Ryan can do late in a game, it's Smith, who went 54-26 from 2008-12 with Ryan as his quarterback, four times reaching the playoffs.
"When he's in the no-huddle, he's probably his most efficient," Smith said. "We were very fortunate to come up with some plays there at the end. We've played two-minute defense well all through training camp and I think that carried over to this week."
Atlanta scored one touchdown in four trips inside the 20, three times settling for field goals. In those three stops, the Bucs held the Falcons to 1 total yard on nine plays, with key tackles for loss from Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.
"When you're put on a short field, you have to respond," Smith said. "It shows their resiliency."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.