The Falcons return home Sunday to face Tampa Bay in a key division game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here's a look at six key players to watch in the battle between NFC South rivals.

Falcons seek to salvage once-promising season with win over Bucs

The Falcons lead the series 25-24 

The Falcons, who are off to a 1-4 start, have not started 1-5 since the lost season of 2007, which saw quarterback Michael Vick sent to federal prison for dogfighting and coach Bobby Petrino leave the team with three weeks left in the season.

» Michael Cunningham: Falcons find a way back into win column

Only the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs have bounced back from 1-5 start to make the playoffs and did so by winning 10 consecutive games. 

Struggling defenses

The Falcons and Bucs are struggling mightily on defense, in part because of varying degrees of injuries. 

The Bucs rank 32nd in the NFL scoring defense at 34.8 points per game, and the Falcons are 31st at 32.6 points per game.

The Falcons haven’t seen a stretch this bad on defense since 1987, which has to be troubling to coach Dan Quinn, a former defensive coordinator.

The Falcons have given up at least 37 points in three consecutive games. Before giving up 43 to the Saints, 37 to the Bengals and 41 to the Steelers, the Falcons hadn’t done that since 1987. In games 6, 7 and 8 of the 1987 season, they gave up 37, 38 and 38 to the Oilers, Saints and Browns. In the first of those games, the Falcons were using replacement players because NFL players were on strike.

Under Quinn, the 38-0 flogging in Carolina in 2015 was the only time the Falcons had given up that many points in a game. 

» More: Julio Jones on 10-game TD drought

The Falcons, who’ve had double-digit missed tackles in two of their losses, spent extra time working on tackling. They want to gang-tackle and get more people to the ball.

“We have to consistently get there,” defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “I’m not waiting on someone else to make the tackle. I’m going to make it. The more people you can have around (the ball), two things comes alive; the football and the opportunity to win on that down. (When you gang tackle) you intimidate the other team.” 

The Bucs have lost cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte to injured reserve. Rookie defensive backs Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead have all had to play and are battling injuries.

Stewart and Davis were second-round picks out of North Carolina and Auburn. Whitehead was a fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh.

The Bucs have not received much from first-round pick defensive tackle Vita Vea, who was the 12th pick in the draft. He suffered a calf injury during the first padded practice of training camp in late July. He was inactive for three games before playing 33 of 60 defensive snaps (54 percent) against Chicago.

“You take any young player, especially and you miss seven weeks of time, it’s going to take you a little bit of time to get back,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “Vita is definitely working at it. I think as the season goes along here, he’ll get more and more involved.”

Winston return to stating lineup

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is set to return to the starting lineup. 

Winston came off the bench in the 48-10 loss to the Bears after serving his three-game suspension under the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. The suspension stemmed from a female Uber driver, who accused him of groping her in Scottsdale, Ariz., in March 2016.

Winston completed 16 of 20 passes for 145 yards and two interceptions in his return.

While Fitzpatrick got off to a hot start, the Bucs are expecting big things from Winston. 

“He’s the same guy,” Koetter said. “Jameis has always been really good with how he approaches things mentally. I mean Jameis is the first guy here in the morning and the last guy to leave at night. Since he came in as a rookie, he’s always has been extremely well-prepared.”

Winston completed 27 of 35 passes (77.1 percent) for 299 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the last meeting, a 24-21 loss to the Falcons on Dec. 18, 2017. He finished with a passer rating of 130.5. 

In five games against the Falcons, Winston has 12 touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 110 passer rating. He has a passer rating of 100-plus in two of his past three NFC South games.

“Every time I play Atlanta, I just imagine growing up in Bessemer, Ala., being an hour away from Atlanta, seeing Michael Vick running around (doing) his thing,” Winston said. “It’s always been a dream to compete against Atlanta and win against Atlanta.

“Definitely going back to Atlanta is like a home game for me. That’s how I view it because all my family, they come up. They show up and hopefully I’ll show out for them.”

The Falcons respect Winston’s ability to extend plays and didn’t notice any rust from the suspension.

“He’s the same player that he always been,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. 

Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones hasn't caught a touchdown pass in 10 games, dating back to last season. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Three key matchups

Buccaneers WRs DeSean Jackson and Michael Evans vs. Falcons CBs Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant: Jackson has 100 yards receiving in three of four games. Michael Evans and Jackson are two of four NFL receivers to average 100-plus receiving yards per game and have three-plus touchdowns catches this season. The speedy Jackson will get Alford and Evans will get Evans when the Falcons go man-to-man. “Both of those starting corners were there when I was there,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “I know how good of players those guys are. Even though they’ve had some injuries in the secondary, we know those two corners can both really play.”

Bucs DE Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Falcons LT Jake Matthews: Pierre-Paul, who was the Bucs’ big free-agent signing, has four sacks and a forced fumble in his past three games. He looking for a sack in his fourth consecutive game. Matthews was the only linemen who didn’t give up a sack against the Steelers last week. He’s looking for a bounce-back game after he gave up a key sack to Carl Lawson against the Bengals two games ago.  

Bucs LB Kwon Alexander vs. Falcons RBs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith: Alexander has had some of his better games against the Falcons. He had 13 tackles in the last meeting and in three games against the Falcons, he has 36 tackles (12 per game), a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and an interception. With Freeman doubtful, Alexander will be stalking Coleman and Smith

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan discusses his foot injury Wednesday. The Falcons host the Bucs Sunday. (Video by. D. Orlando Ledbetter)

QB corner with Matt Ryan 

Here are three questions with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on the Buccaneers

On how they try to put last week behind them and move forward against Tampa Bay: “We have to. Obviously, we didn’t play the way that we’re capable of, and that’s disappointing. But there’s a long way to go, and we’ve got to win some games, but you can’t win more than one a week. Our focus has to be on just taking care of business this week and trying to find a way to win and playing our best football Sunday and trusting that our process and everything took care of that.”

On how difficult it is preparing for Tampa Bay: “I think from a personnel standpoint they’ve obviously have had some injuries and have had some different guys playing. From a scheme standpoint, they’ve been a little bit different from week to week. But their defense is built on certain principles, so we’ll be ready for those things and then have to adjust.”

On how does free-agent signee Jason Pierre-Paul look: “Fits in well with their front-four. High-level pass rusher, very physical, good speed. Fits nicely with their scheme too. Thought he’s done a nice job for them so far.”

About the Buccaneers  

» The Falcons face a well-rested Tampa Bay squad that’s coming off its bye week.

» After winning two games, the Bucs lost games to the Steelers (30-27) on Sept. 24 and were routed by the Bears on Sept. 30. 

» With Ryan Fitzpatrick playing at a high level, the Bucs opened the season with stunning victories over New Orleans (48-40) on Sept. 9 and Philadelphia (27-21) on Sept. 16. 

» It will be the 50th meeting between the teams. The Falcons lead the series 25-24 and have won the past three meetings.

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