Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith liked Sunday's win for the pragmatic reasons -- on the road, in the division, starting the season off right -- but his players were thrilled to give him the win for more personal reasons, against the team he coached for seven seasons from 2008-14.
"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 had said Monday that 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,"
Smith said his defense was far from perfect -- 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 should know what Ryan can do late in a game, it's Smith, who went 54-26 from 2008-12 with Ryan as his quarterback, reaching the playoffs four times in that span.
"Matt's an outstanding quarterback, and 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."
The Bucs' defense was at its best when the Falcons were in the red zone -- of four trips inside the 20, they got a touchdown just once, settling for field goals three times. 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."