ATLANTA — For Dan Quinn, success came quickly one year ago as a rookie coach with the Atlanta Falcons.
Quinn won his first five games as the Falcons appeared a certainty to make the playoffs.
The Falcons were 6-1 before their season began to unravel when another rookie, quarterback Jameis Winston, led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 23-20 overtime win in Atlanta. The Buccaneers rallied after trailing by 17 points and completed a sweep of the season series with another close, comeback win in Tampa one month later.
Quinn’s Falcons and Winston’s Buccaneers renew the NFC South rivalry in Sunday’s opener that could help reveal which team might make a move up in the division.
Winston said he knows the Falcons will remember last season’s losses to Tampa Bay.
“When you beat somebody like that, you’ve got to know that they’re coming with it,” Winston said. “… And I know they’ve got it out for us, so we have to be ready.”
There is a new layer to the rivalry this year. Mike Smith, who had the most wins of any coach in Falcons history, returns to Atlanta in his new job as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator. Smith was hired by new Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, the team’s former offensive coordinator. Koetter was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator under Smith.
Smith said his knowledge of some of Atlanta’s key players, including Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, won’t make a difference.
“We’re only familiar with a handful of guys,” Smith said. “That roster has changed over the last two years. I think there are less than 15 guys that are on their roster that were there two years ago. … I think it is somewhat of an advantage, but it can be a disadvantage because you know too much.”
Quinn also doesn’t expect his players’ memories of Smith and Koetter to be a factor.
“I think a lot of the players here would have lots of respect and regard for those two, but in between the white lines it’s all about the game and the players,” Quinn said.
Smith will work from the press box during the game.
Here are some things to know about the opener:
REBOUND HOPES FOR RYAN: Quinn often says “it’s about the ball.” That means cutting down on 30 giveaways — tied for fifth most in the league. Ryan’s 16 interceptions were the second most of his career and came with only 21 touchdown passes, his fewest since his 2008 rookie season.
Ryan’s decline led to questions about his coexistence with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. At 31, Ryan faces a key season as he must prove he is the quarterback to lead Atlanta back to the playoffs.
PASS RUSH BLUES: For Atlanta, improving the league’s worst pass rush is an obvious emphasis. The Falcons were last in the NFL with only 19 sacks in 2015. But it’s also an area of concern for the Buccaneers , who are looking for more consistency even though their 38 sacks last season doubled Atlanta’s dismal total.
The Falcons have ranked no higher than 28th in sacks since 2012. Veteran Dwight Freeney, who led Arizona with eight sacks last season, was signed as a pass-rush specialist. The Falcons hope Freeney, 36, can serve as a mentor to second-year player Vic Beasley Jr., who had four sacks as a rookie.
COMFORT ZONE: Winston is more comfortable running Koetter’s offense entering his second season. The coach also feels a lot better about his young quarterback, whose first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Winston rebounded to join Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies in league history to throw for more than 4,000 yards.
“Last year we were still in that phase where Jameis was turning it over three or four times every day. He’s not doing that now,” Koetter said, referring to the quarterback’s performance in practice.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER: Atlanta’s two losses to Tampa Bay were part of a 1-5 showing against NFC South teams that led to an 8-8 finish. The Buccaneers finished 6-10, with a 3-3 record in the division.
The Falcons face NFC South teams in three of their first four games this season.
DOME SWEET HOME: This is the start of the final season for the Georgia Dome. The Falcons’ new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is being built beside the dome. The new facility will have a retractable roof and also will be home to the new Atlanta United MLS team, also owned by Arthur Blank.