Grudge match: Falcons have a lot of incentive to beat Bucs

Two former head coaches, a Super Bowl-winning GM and red-hot defense await in Atlanta.
Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published Nov. 19, 2019|Updated Nov. 20, 2019

TAMPA — Raheem Morris went from passing game coordinator and coaching receivers to coaching defensive backs for the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago. Since that time, his team has beaten the Saints and Panthers without allowing a touchdown.

So what changed?

“You’re like the ninth person who’s asked me that today,’’ said Morris, who is splitting the role as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator with linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. Morris calls plays on third down and in two-minute situations.

“It’s pretty funny. I couldn’t tell you what they were doing. I wasn’t over there. I’ll tell you what’s different. We’re stopping people.’’

Dirk Koetter has the league’s third-best passing offense and has settled back in his role as the Falcons offensive coordinator.

At 3-7, with another season circling the drain, the Bucs get to play the suddenly red-hot Falcons (3-7) twice in the final six games, beginning Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Waiting for them will be two former Bucs head coaches in Morris and Koetter, along with team president Rich McKay, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Bucs as their most successful general manager.

Gentlemen, start your axe-grinding.

Related: RELATED: For the young Bucs secondary, the learning curve looked steep Sunday

“The worst part of any game is that two hours of waiting at the stadium before the game,’’ Koetter said. “And obviously, you’ll see some people that you’re fond of and maybe some that you’re not.''

Since Morris and Koetter left Tampa Bay, the Bucs have been a listing ship. Both men are responsible for the only winning seasons since Jon Gruden was fired after going 9-7 in 2008.

Morris, who replaced Gruden at age 32, was tasked with gutting the roster of expensive veterans as the Bucs owners maximized profits during three uncapped years (2009-11) with no minimum player salaries. His team went 10-6 in 2010 and started 4-2 the next year until the inability to sign free agents caught up to the Bucs, who lost 10 games in a row.

Koetter was the Bucs offensive coordinator when Lovie Smith was fired and went 9-7 in his first season as head coach in 2016. But back-to-back 5-11 seasons got him canned and he rushed back to his old job, trading Jameis Winston for Matt Ryan.

The Falcons started 1-7 and were a mess on defense until head coach Dan Quinn ordered those changes on his staff.

But there have been few adjustments for new Bucs coach Bruce Arians, whose team has lost five of their past six games. Of course, expectations are so low that Arians could still exceed them.

The Bucs are in the cellar of the NFC South for the ninth time in the past 11 years. At least the Falcons can at least still recall success. They lost in the NFC divisional playoffs two years ago and were NFC Champs in 2016 before blowing a 28-3 lead to lose Super Bowl LI 34-28 in overtime to the New England Patriots.

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Related: RELATED: Bucs-Saints AfterMath: Raise the white flags? Not so fast

Quinn knew his job was in jeopardy when he ordered Morris and Brick to the other side of the ball. Morris simplified the scheme and “they’re playing faster,’’ according to Arians.

First, the Falcons upset the Saints in New Orleans 26-9. Then last Sunday, they won 29-3 at Carolina.

Tackle Demar Dotson is the only player remaining on the Bucs roster who played for Morris. But Koetter is intimately familiar with the Bucs’ personnel, particularly on offense. He was Winston’s first play-caller and helped him earn a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team as a rookie in 2015.

“He knows the guy,’’ Arians said of Koetter’s familiarity with Winston. “I would imagine he’d say it’s the same old stuff. But I don’t think right now they’re changing what they’re doing defensively because they’re playing well and they’re playing fast.’’

On Monday, Koetter was asked if he could provide the Falcons with some insider knowledge on Winston, who already has tied his career-high with 18 interceptions.

“I don’t think so,’’ Koetter said. “It’s all out there on tape. And they’re running a different scheme now. I can probably help them more with some of the defensive guys. I talk to our guys about the guys – I know they’ve got some new guys on defense, too. Again, in this league, everything is on tape. Everything is there for these guys to study.’’

What the Falcons will discover is that the Bucs and Winston still are the worst at protecting the football. They lead the NFL in giveaways with 25 (18 interceptions, seven lost fumbles) and their minus-10 turnover ratio is better only than the Bengals, Giants and Dolphins.

The NFL is a nomadic career for players, coaches and executives. But coaching the Bucs was the highlight of their career for Koetter and Morris. McKay, whose father, John McKay was Tampa Bay’s first head coach, not only rose to become a Super Bowl-winning GM but also helped save the franchise by solidifying the financing for Raymond James Stadium.

Related: RELATED: Dirk Koetter has no bitter feelings about his time as Bucs coach

The Glazer family which owns the Bucs were so indebted to McKay that they allowed him to leave the Bucs to become the Falcons GM in December of 2003. Sixteen years after building RJS, McKay secured the financing with owner Arthur Blank for the construction of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as CEO and team president.

Two former Bucs head coaches will call plays for the Falcons Sunday and their former GM will watch from the owner’s box.

Koetter was asked if he harbors any hard feelings?

"No. No. It’s over, man,'' Koetter said. "You can’t live in the past. I work for the Falcons and it’s a great organization. It is what it is at this point. You’ve just got to move on.''