At the risk of riling some critics who insist he's too nice on the football field, Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy concedes he has a deep admiration for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
The four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle stresses, however, that sportsmanship should never be mistaken for a lack of commitment to do whatever is necessary to win.
When the Buccaneers (3-4) host the NFC South-leading Falcons (5-3) on Thursday night, McCoy intends to do everything he can to make the NFL's passing yardage leader uncomfortable.
"Matty Ice is Matty Ice. I love the guy," said McCoy, who's been criticized at times by fans who feels he often shows too much reverence for opposing players.
The seventh-year pro is unapologetic about saying kind things about star players or occasionally helping another team's quarterback to his feet after a sack.
"He's a nice guy, he's a great player, so what? I love football and I respect him. He's a great player and he makes you go play a lot harder," McCoy said. "I'll shake his hand before and after the game, and during the game I'll try to kill him. ... It is what it is. We've just got to stop him. It's OK to be nice. It's OK to be a nice guy."
Ryan leads the league in both yards passing (2,636) and touchdowns (19). The Falcons, though, have lost three straight to the Bucs, including 31-24 in the season opener, and are hoping to tighten the division standings Thursday night.
Former Atlanta coach Mike Smith, now Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator, said the Falcons are not the same team the Bucs faced in Week 1.
With Ryan and receiver Julio Jones leading the way, Atlanta leads the NFL in scoring and total offense. And, the defense has progressed since Jameis Winston had one of his best games of the season against the Falcons in the opener.
"I don't think they're a lot different, scheme-wise," coach Dirk Koetter said. "I think they're playing with more confidence, and you would expect that. They've won some big games."
Some things to know about the Falcons and Buccaneers:
DEFENSELESS: The Buccaneers aren't making excuses about allowing a franchise-worst 626 yards, including a club record 513 passing, during last week's 30-24 overtime loss to Oakland. The team defines "long" plays as runs of 10-plus yards, as well as receptions of 20-plus yards. The Raiders had 12 for 374 yards, including Seth Roberts' 41-yard scoring reception in OT.
"Totally unacceptable," Smith said.
McCoy expects the unit to rebound against Atlanta.
"OK, let's say that they did all that and we won. Would we care? I think we care more about the fact that we lost," McCoy said. "The yards, it is what it is. I've seen teams throw for a whole bunch of yards and lose the game. We lost the game, that's what matters. We'll fix that. ... We need to get a win."
STOPPING THE RUN: Atlanta's defense hasn't allowed an opposing player to rush for 100 yards in 13 consecutive games. With ex-Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers sidelined by a left foot injury, Tampa Bay will line up with its fourth different starting running back — possibly Antone Smith or rookie Peyton Barber.
Koetter said whoever plays, he's confident the Bucs can move the ball on the ground.
"If a guy's here," the coach said, "he's good enough."
UNDER THE LIGHTS: The biggest drawback to playing twice in five days is the physical toll it takes on players. The Falcons and Bucs , however, welcome the opportunity to showcase their division rivalry to the rest of the nation.
"This is our chance again to play against another great team and kind of make a statement," Winston said. "Just not really a statement, just to prove to ourselves that we are a good football team."
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn doesn't mind the short preparation time.
"There is a little bit of pre-planning that goes into it, but I do like it. I'd like it better if it was always a home game, but honestly I do like it, playing night games and having them as division games," Quinn said. "Honestly, it's a lot of fun."
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE?: Not at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs have one of the worst home records (3-16) in the NFL over the past three seasons. They are 0-3 at home this season, compared to 3-1 on the road. The Falcons are 3-1 on the road, the lone setback a two-point loss at Seattle on Oct. 16.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL