TAMPA — So much has changed since Week 1, when the Bucs edged the Falcons 31-24 in Dirk Koetter's NFL head coaching debut. The Bucs' top two rushers, Doug Martin and Charles Sims, are injured. The Falcons' leading rusher (Tevin Coleman) and leading receiver (tight end Jacob Tamme) from that game are out with injuries as well. If the Bucs win, they will be within a half-game of the Falcons for the NFC South lead, with the head-to-head sweep in their favor. Here are five things to watch tonight:
Another vulnerable pass defense against Jameis Winston
Winston had his best game of the season against Atlanta in Week 1, throwing for 281 yards and four touchdowns. Atlanta has allowed an NFL-high 19 touchdown passes and 2,283 passing yards — tied with Oakland for third most.
Atlanta's secondary allowed two TD passes in a three-game stretch before giving up four to Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers Sunday in a 33-32 Falcons win. Remember, Winston wasn't a huge part of the Bucs' Atlanta sweep last year, averaging 202 passing yards throwing one touchdown in each game.
Falcons' Vic Beasley has arrived
In Week 1, Beasley didn't have a tackle against the Bucs. The second-year linebacker is now third in the league with 7½ sacks, including 3½ in an Oct. 9 win at Denver.
Dwight Freeney is out with an injury, but fellow defensive end and former Bucs first-rounder Adrian Clayborn has three sacks and a 5-yard fumble-recovery touchdown in the past two weeks.
The Falcons have 14 sacks in their past four games, so this will be a bigger test for the Bucs offensive line than back in Week 1, when Atlanta had none.
Gators rookies in the secondary
Vernon Hargreaves is an every-down cornerback for the Bucs, but he's still without an interception. His former Florida teammate, safety Keanu Neal, has two and is Atlanta's leading tackler despite missing the first two games. Brian Poole, another Gator and from Bradenton Southeast, has 31 tackles for the Falcons.
The Falcons are also starting two rookies at linebacker. LSU's Deion Jones has 45 tackles and Minnesota's De'Vondre Campbell has 22. That gives them great speed in the middle of the defense but less experience and awareness. Can the Bucs offense take advantage of that?
Deep threat Julio Jones
He averages 20 yards per catch, best of any player in the league with 25-plus catches, and that's way up from 13.8 last year, when he had 136 catches for 1,871 yards. He has 27 fewer catches than at this point last year but only 33 fewer yards, and he still is on pace for more than 1,700.
Jones wasn't 100 percent in the season opener when the Bucs held him to 66 yards on four catches, his second-fewest yards in nine career games against Tampa Bay. But he has had as many as 300 in a game this season and has previous games of 161 and 162 against the Bucs.
The record for receiving yards by a Bucs opponent is 199 by the Giants' Hakeem Nicks in 2012. The Bucs have given up 181 (Carolina's Greg Olsen) and 173 (Oakland's Amari Cooper) already this season.
Watch the deep ball again, Bucs secondary
Tampa Bay gave up 513 yards last week to Oakland quarterback David Carr, most ever against the Bucs and breaking a Raiders record that had stood since 12 years before the Bucs played their first game in 1976.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan already has one 500-yard game this season. He was 21-for-24 for 286 yards and three TDs the last time he faced the Bucs on a Thursday, a 56-14 Atlanta win in 2014.
The Falcons have 19 pass plays of 30 yards or more, most in the league. They had only two in the first Bucs game, a promising sign. Ryan has seven TD passes of 30-plus yards; nobody else in the league has more than four. And it's not just Jones, since Ryan has thrown TDs to 10 players.
Tevin Coleman, who led the Falcons with 22 rushing yards and 95 receiving in Week 1, and Jacob Tamme, who led the team in receptions against the Bucs, are out with injuries. Perhaps Carr's record can stand a full week after all.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690.