5 things to know as Falcons look ahead to Buccaneers

Both defenses are giving up points by the bushel
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) looks to pass the ball against the Chicago Bears during the second half at Soldier Field.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) looks to pass the ball against the Chicago Bears during the second half at Soldier Field.

With the magical start to the season long over, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston is expected to return to the starting lineup when the Bucs (2-2) face the Falcons (1-4) in a NFC South game at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We watched film (on Monday),” Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley said. “Get ready for Tampa Bay. It’s as simple as that. We can’t dwell on (the Pittsburgh) game. You have to get ready for the next one.”

The Falcons are coming off an ugly loss to the Steelers on Sunday.

Winston set to start 

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

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

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

Bucs’ defense last in scoring

The Bucs’ defense, which is under the direction of former Falcons head coach Mike Smith, is giving up 34.8 points per game, which ranks last in the league. The Falcons give up 32.6, which ranks 31st.

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

After winning two games, the Bucs dropped 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.

The Bucs and the Falcons have two of the weakest pass rushes in the league. Both have just eight sacks (26th in the league) and feature one rusher. Tampa Bay’s Jason Pierre-Paul has four of the Bucs’ sacks and McKinley has five of the Falcons’ sacks.

Injury-ravaged defenses 

Both defenses have been hit hard by injuries.

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 receive much from first-round pick defensive tackle Vita Vea and running back Ronald Jones, the first of the Bucs’ three second-round picks.

Vea, who was the 12th overall pick in the draft, suffered a calf injury during the first padded practice of training camp in late July. He was inactive for the first three games before playing 33 of 60 defensive snaps (54 percent) against Chicago.

Jones has just 10 carries for 29 yards, while Peyton Barber leads the Bucs in rushing with 50 carries for 148 yards. The Bucs don’t have a rushing touchdown from a running back this season.

After giving up five touchdowns in each of the past three games, the Falcons are probing for solutions on defense.

As the injuries started to mount, the Falcons insisted that they wanted to stay “in-house” with the replacements. But after another loss, 41-17 to the Steelers, the Falcons will go back to the laboratory to find solutions.

The defense has allowed 163 points, which is tops in the league. Oakland (149) and San Francisco (146) are second and third.

Bucs may copy Steelers’ 21 package

The Steelers opened against the Falcons with 21 personnel – two tight ends, one running back and two wide receivers and forced the Falcons to play their base defense.

The Falcons answered the grouping by playing their base 4-3 alignment, which kept Vic Beasley and McKinley off the field. Brooks Reed and Steven Means opened the game and played 34 and 23 of 61 defensive snaps respectively.

“They did a good job, they forced us to play a lot of base (defense),” McKinley said. “Me and Vic, we don’t play too much base. They did a good job the first pretty much three drives forcing our defense to play base. There was pretty much nothing we could do about that. When the opportunity comes, we have to perform.”

McKinley and Beasley both would like to play in the base defense.

“You have to ask DQ,” McKinley said, referring to head coach Dan Quinn.

Beasley said: “I think coach had a good game plan. I think that would be a good question to ask him about what his intentions were. I think we were in the right position at times, but too many mistakes on my end and other guy’s too. We have to be better.”

The Bucs, who are expected to be without tight end O.J. Howard, who has a knee injury, may try to emulate Pittsburgh’s approach.

The Bucs opened the game against the Bears in 11 personnel – one tight, one running back and three wide receivers.

“They had only played maybe up until that time 10 percent of their game in that package,” Quinn said. “So in this game, they did more. You probably saw in the second or third series we put them into that package.

“So, we're equipped to do that, too. It was just different design. I'm sure they were probably trying something new to them as well.”

The plan worked as Steelers running back James Conner rushed 21 times for 110 yards. The Bucs are trying to get their rushing attack moving.

Falcons playing sub-standard defense, too