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Buccaneers vs. Falcons: Three key matchups on defense

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers open the season against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Last year, the Bucs won twice in close affairs. This year’s contest should be a good measure for where the Bucs and the Falcons stand. Both teams struggled last year, especially on defense, but both teams want to be playoff contenders this year.

We’ll see who’s what tomorrow, and the game will come down to some key matchups on both sides of the ball. Here are three of those matchups when the Bucs are on defense. If they win these, we’ll know they’re a better defensive team than they were last year — and we also know they’ll likely win the game.

CBs Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes vs. WR Julio Jones

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers upgraded their secondary this offseason by signing Brent Grimes and drafting Vernon Hargreaves. Both cornerbacks will start the season, though Alterraun Verner is officially listed as sharing a starting spot with Hargreaves. That means the Bucs’ top three cornerbacks are all 5’11” and under.

That is going to be a problem against the 6’3”, 220 lbs. Julio Jones, who has made a career out of outrunning and outjumping bigger and faster defensive backs than the Bucs’ top three cornerbacks. And he tends to do that against cornerbacks with better safety help than the Bucs can offer their defense.

The upside is that Jones is the only reliable receiving threat on the Falcons’ roster, though Mohamed Sanu may be able to do some damage, too. If the Bucs can shut Jones down, or at least limit him, that’d be a big blow to the Atlanta offense. If he can catch jump ball after jump ball against the Bucs’ diminutive cornerbacks, they’re going to have an issue.

DE Noah Spence vs. T Jake Matthews

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally have an edge rusher who can consistently beat left tackles around the edge. Or at least, that’s what they hope they have in rookie defensive end Noah Spence. He’ll be going up against former top ten pick Jake Matthews, who hasn’t been entirely convincing so far, though he had a good 2015 season.

This is more about Noah Spence than Matthews, though. Spence looked promising in preseason, though he’s going to need to add some power and a more reliable counter to his game to be a consistent rusher in the NFL. For now, the Bucs just need an impact at defensive end to complement Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers, who will slide inside on passing downs. A good pass rush goes a long way, after all.

MLB Kwon Alexander vs. QB Matt Ryan

Kwon Alexander had a promising but somewhat up-and-down rookie season. He made a number of splash plays and showed up in every game, but missed too many tackles and struggled to be in position in the passing game, leading to far too many intermediate completions over the middle.

Coincidentally, intermediate completions is where Matt Ryan traditionally excels. He’ll try to manipulate the safeties and Alexander to create space in the middle of the field, sometimes for Julio Jones, sometimes to complement Julio Jones. But the target there will be Alexander — and he’ll have to show he’s learned from last year’s mistakes.