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Falcons vs. Buccaneers 2016: Three key story lines for Week 1

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The return of familiar faces, an offensive awakening, and a rookie kicker facing his demons.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Training Camp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Falcons’ offense get on track?

The Tampa Bay defense has genuine weaknesses, but you wouldn’t have gotten that impression watching Atlanta’s offense last year. The Falcons put up a combined 39 points over their two contests against the Bucs, with Matt Ryan throwing for plenty of yards but putting up just three touchdowns against three fumbles, one of which he lost (cue the Mike Person snap grumbling). Devonta Freeman had 35 carries for just 135 yards, though he was more active through the air. Overall, it was a pretty mediocre offensive effort from a team that generally had struggles with putting up yards and ultimately scoring in the second half of 2015.

This year, the Falcons will need much better from their offense to win. Jameis Winston is entering his second season, the Buccaneers have added impressive rookies Vernon Hargreaves at corner and Noah Spence off the edge, and you can fully expect the Bucs to put a stronger effort forward than they did last year. Atlanta should be up to the challenge, in terms of pure talent and a better comfort level with Dan Quinn and company’s schemes in everyone’s second year, but they’ll need to display that improvement immediately.

Dirk Koetter & Mike Smith’s return

Mike Smith was one of the most successful head coaches in Falcons history, presiding over the team’s first back-to-back winning seasons, multiple playoff appearances, and an NFC Conference Championship run in 2012. After the team sagged badly in 2013 and 2014, Smith found himself fired, and he was out of football a year ago.

Now he’s back on the Buccaneers staff as the defensive coordinator, with head coach Dirk Koetter presiding over the whole team. Koetter was the Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-2014, so this is quite the role reversal. It’s fair to say both coaches are going to want a measure of revenge against Atlanta, and to prove the Falcons made a mistake letting both go.

The subplots here are good ones. For one: Is Mike Smith going to run a more creative, pass rush friendly scheme in Tampa Bay? Will Dirk Koetter’s offense shred this new-look Falcons defense? Will former Falcon Brent Grimes be effective or a liability against this passing attack?

I’m looking forward to finding out, even if I’m also a little apprehensive about it.

Will the game come down to Roberto Aguayo?

The Buccaneers traded up in the second round to grab Aguayo as their kicker of the future. As I noted at the time, you more or less have to be one of the best kickers in the NFL for a decade-plus to justify that, and it was little surprise that Aguayo felt some pressure over the summer and struggled. He righted the ship in a major way the last couple of weeks of preseason, but it’ll certainly be in the back of his head that he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn there for a while.

If the game comes down to a field goal opportunity for the rookie, will he hit it? This will be the first real, regular season test for him, so I think I speak for all of us when I say “let’s hope not.”

Which story lines are you watching closely?