A pair of NFC South foes kick off Week 3 in a primetime contest on Thursday Night Football, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Georgia Dome to face the Atlanta Falcons. The clubs have met 41 times, including 24 games since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002. While the Bucs hold a 21-20 advantage in the all-time series, since realignment, both teams have 12 wins each. Falcons head coach Mike Smith is 8-4 against Tampa Bay, including a 5-1 record at home.
Top Matchup: Falcons LB Paul Worrilow vs. Bucs RB Bobby Rainey
The NFL's leading tackler (29), Worrilow, could see Rainey and/or Bucs RB Doug Martin, who missed Week 2 and was limited in practice this week, due to a knee injury. While Rainey stepped in admirably for Martin, last Sunday, rushing for 144 yards on 22 carries (6.5 avg.), Worrilow still recalls the success Rainey had against the Falcons in 2013 (30 carries, 163 yards and 2 TDs), but said the key focus is trying to stop the entire Tampa Bay rushing attack. "He kind of had a coming-out game against us last year," Worrilow said of Rainey. "We're going to emphasize stopping the run and being more physical up-front; those are areas we need to improve on for Thursday night."
Under the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons WR Harry Douglas
Last season, Douglas recorded two 100-yard games against Tampa Bay, including six grabs for 134 yards (22.3 yards per reception) and a career-long 80-yard touchdown in the clubs' Week 11 meeting. In the last three matchups against the Buccaneers, Douglas has three TDs; with the other WR weapons Falcons QB Matt Ryan has lined up with him, the team's fans are hoping Douglas' scoring streak continues on Thursday night, ideally leading to a win.
On the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons WR Julio Jones
When you're as good as Jones, it's tough to not be on the opposing team's radar. Despite not playing against the Bucs in 2013 (foot injury), the Tampa Bay defense still knows what Jones brings to the Falcons. "With Julio back, it's going to be even more of a task on our behalf, because he's a great playmaker and Matt Ryan is going to find a way to get him the ball," Bucs LB Lavonte David said Tuesday. Jones is averaging nearly five receptions and 100 yards against the Bucs, totaling 19 catches for 394 yards and 3 TDs in four games. The team's top receiver in 2014, logging 14 receptions for 204 yards and one touchdown, Jones is looking to bring a spark to the Falcons offense on Thursday night, hoping it continues, all season long.
Number of the Game: 20
We could see NFL history on Thursday night, involving Falcons WR Devin Hester, who needs just one non-offensive TD to become the league's all-time leader in such scores. Currently, Hester is the NFL's active leader with 19 non-offensive touchdowns, tied with his longtime mentor and friend, Hall of Famer and former Falcons CB, Deion Sanders.
Three Keys to Victory:
1. Stop the Run: The Tampa Bay rushing attack is averaging 129.5 yards per game, including three runs of 20-plus yards, keyed by Rainey. The Falcons will look to dominate up-front, plugging gaps and making rush attempts miserable for the Bucs, ideally leading to tough third-and-longs and getting the ball back to Ryan and the offense.
2. Ignite the Offense: Leading the league in total passing offense (328.5 yards per game), the Falcons aerial attack was held in check in Week 2, which fueled days of work to ensure the same thing doesn't happen Thursday night. Ryan says the team learned from last Sunday's loss and has focused all efforts this week on "playing the way we're capable of," deemed by the team's leader as the best "recipe for success."
3. Protect the Ball:Falcons RB Steven Jackson is well aware of Bucs head coach Lovie Smith and the way he teaches his players to attack the football, citing even more importance of covering the rock in Thursday night's game. "Coach Lovie teaches his guys to run after the football and try and create turnovers, so we have to make sure that we take care of the ball and bring a lot of energy Thursday night."
Footnote: For a look at the Falcons injury updates, including the latest on WR Roddy White and rookie Jake Matthews, click here.