FLOWERY BRANCH — In five seasons as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator, Mike Smith only had two games against Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden.
The Jaguars won both times, including a 24-23 victory last year in Tampa, but the amount of time and energy spent on facing Gruden's complex schemes left Smith feeling more relieved than elated.
Now that he's head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Smith must prepare for the Buccaneers twice each year. Consider this week one that Smith, coordinator Brian VanGorder and Atlanta's other defensive coaches will lose a few hours of sleep.
"The record speaks for itself in terms of what he can do offensively," Smith said Thursday. "Throughout his entire career, he has created mismatches and issues for defensive coaches. I think he has done an outstanding job."
Gruden, who is 8-4 against the Falcons with three NFC South titles and a Super Bowl title since taking charge of the Buccaneers in 2002, long ago mastered the savvy for creating confusion before the snap.
His multiple formation shifts cause problems, not only for middle linebackers to realign the front seven, but for defensive coordinators to fret over last-second personnel decisions.
It's a classic game of strategy exploitation and one that the Falcons (1-0) must overcome Sunday when they visit the Buccaneers (0-1).
"They can provide a lot of different looks for us, so at times it can be a little challenging with some of the stuff they do," said Atlanta strongside linebacker Michael Boley, whose team last year lost twice to Tampa Bay by a combined 68-10 score. "So it's going to be on us to just basically play our game."
Boley, a four-year veteran, and weakside linebacker Keith Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowl selection in his 11th season, will have to offer lots of reassurance to rookie Curtis Lofton, who starts in the middle.
Brooking is particularly concerned that the Falcons keep their composure when running backs Warrick Dunn, his beloved former Atlanta teammate, and Earnest Graham work in passing situations.
"I think they will definitely try to create mismatches with our linebackers," Brooking said. "Warrick can do a lot of things."
Gruden and his top offensive lieutenant, assistant Bill Muir, in his 31st NFL season, are also gifted at helping their teams compensate for in-season injuries to quarterbacks.
No active head coach has started 12 different quarterbacks and earned 12 victories (Denver's Mike Shanahan, San Diego's Norv Turner and Buffalo's Dick Jauron are 9-for-9).
The Bucs will start Brian Griese, who went a combined 9-7 under Gruden during a run from 2004-05 in which Chris Simms and Brad Johnson also held the job, for the injured Jeff Garcia on Sunday.
Griese took more snaps during training camp and preseason after Garcia was slow to recover from calf and finger injuries. In last week's 24-20 loss at New Orleans, Garcia was 24-for-41, 221 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Gruden indicated that Garcia, who earned a Pro Bowl bid last year in his first season with the Bucs, will return as the starter when he's healthy. But the coach's focus now is on Griese.
"He did not have some of the weapons, I think, that we possess now," Gruden said regarding Griese's first Tampa Bay stop. "Statistically, and from a functional standpoint, he did some great things here and won a lot of games for us. His won-loss record was quite impressive. Like I said, he's a guy that will lead us this Sunday, and we've got to rally around him."
For Smith, whose team reported no significant injuries on Thursday, the key to stopping Tampa Bay is forcing turnovers. The Bucs are 16-0 under Gruden when their offense avoids an interception and a lost fumble.
Smith's Jacksonville defense picked off Garcia three times last year, and the Falcons' first-year coach is pleased his new team is coming off a Week 1 win over Detroit that included no turnovers for Atlanta.
"I told the players the night before the game that you only get one opportunity to make a first impression," Smith said. "I think the guys understand what we're all about and I think they've really bought in to what we're trying to get done."