DE Michael Johnson vs T Jake Matthews
Michael Johnson is likely to play on Thursday, after being limited and out, respectively, in the past two games. And that's more than a little important, because the Bucs will almost certainly be missing Gerald McCoy, their best pass rusher.
The past two weeks, the Bucs' inability to pressure the passer was painfully obvious. There were reasons for it, of course, and sometimes they got through, but they only have three sacks over two games. Even when they blitzed nearly every play toward the end of the last game, because they were missing three starting defensive linemen.
With McCoy out, Johnson is going to have to be the main source of pass rush against the Falcons, and he'll be going against a rookie. Yes, a polished and highly-drafted rookie -- but a rookie nonetheless. A rookie who has not yet fully adjusted to the NFL. If Johnson is going to be worth his money, he'll have to earn it tomorrow. Get after the passer.
CB Johnthan Banks vs WR Julio Jones
Roddy White may be out, which is good news for the Bucs. What is not good news is that Julio Jones will play -- and he's by far the more dangerous receiver. The Bucs' secondary, especially their cornerbacks, have struggled. Alterraun Verner has played reasonably well, but opposing quarterbacks have mostly avoided him. And that's likely to occur tomorrow, too: Verner generally sticks to the offensive right, while Julio Jones mostly plays on the offensive left.
So that would leave Banks on Verner. Banks struggled the past two weeks against Kelvin Benjamin and...well, no one in particular. Both in man coverage and in zone coverage. It's not that he was bad, per se, but he simply seemed to be making tackles rather than breaking up or even intercepting passes. That's part of the schematic design in zone coverage, of course, but it's still a bit of an issue.
With Julio Jones this becomes double important. Jones is explosive with the ball in his hands, and tackling him before he can get going will be crucial. But preventing him from catching the ball at all would be ideal. And that's going to be a little more difficult.
LB Dane Fletcher vs the passing game
The Bucs will have yet another new backup fill in for an injured starter tonight: Dane Fletcher will be the starting middle linebacker in Mason Foster's place. And Dane Fletcher's going to have to lead the team's run defense. He can be happy that Tony Gonzalez is no longer playing, but he'll still have his job cut out for him.
The Bucs have played nickel defenses exclusively so far this year. Even when opposing teams play four wide receivers. And that means that in certain situations, Fletcher will have to defend a wide receiver in man or zone coverage. That matchup could decide the game: it might be Devin Hester, or it might be Harry Douglas, but whoever gets to go against Fletcher should be Ryan's go-to target in coverage.