September 08, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Mike Smith is headed back to Atlanta, this time as defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The ex-Falcons coach is excited about the trip, though not because he's facing his old team for the first time since being fired two seasons ago.

The winningest coach in franchise history when he was let go in December 2014, Smith spent a year away from the NFL before joining one of his former Atlanta assistants, Dirk Koetter, in trying to transform the Bucs into playoff contenders.

Koetter, in his first season as coach of the Bucs, and Smith, 66-46 in seven seasons with the Falcons, both reject the notion that returning to the Georgia Dome on Sunday will be special for any other reason than it's the regular-season opener.

The duo said so much has changed since they left that their familiarity with players remaining on the roster from the Smith regime is only a minimal advantage.

''Obviously for me and Mike, we're both two years removed, so there's less and less guys that they've kept,'' Koetter, who spent three seasons as Smith's offensive coordinator in Atlanta before moving into the same role with the Bucs in 2015, which means this weekend actually will be the third time he's gone against the Falcons since his departure.

''There's some guys that are the same, but I think my emotional time with that is passed,'' Koetter added. ''We have to look at this as a football team. This is a divisional game on the road to open the season. ... I'm just worried about what our team does.''

Smith led the Falcons to two NFC South titles and four playoff berths, including an appearance in the 2012 NFC championship game. He fell out of favor over his last two seasons in Atlanta, going 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014.

The 57-year-old jumped at the opportunity to join Koetter, who reached out to his old boss after Tampa Bay promoted him from offensive coordinator to first-time NFL head coach when Lovie Smith was fired after last season.

The former coach sees a parallel in the challenge he faced in Atlanta, which drafted quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, and the situation Koetter inherited with the Bucs, who have second-year quarterback Jameis Winston.

''This is a quarterback-driven league. There's no doubt about it. And I think Jameis is an outstanding quarterback,'' Smith said Thursday. ''He's got some great traits on the field, but he's also a great leader.

''And when you have that, I think it puts you a step ahead of the teams in the league. We're all trying to have the best possible football team, and I think it starts with the quarterback position. So I do see some similarities, definitely.''

Smith joked that he's had a lot of ''sleepless nights'' lately, preparing to face a Falcons offense led by Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.

''They're three really outstanding football players, and if they get going, they can make it be a long day for you. We've had an opportunity to put in our preparation and now we have an opportunity to go in and play and see how we execute,'' said Smith, adding that the transition from head coach to defensive coordinator hasn't been as difficult as some might expect.

''I sleep better at night, that's the first thing. It's been enjoyable,'' Smith said. ''It's been refreshing to be a little bit more hands-on in a smaller group that you're dealing with. These guys have been great.

''Not only the players, but the coaches and our support staff. It's been fun to get back to just worry about Xs and Os and not having to worry about things outside of that.''

Like Smith and Koetter, the Falcons are playing down the significance of opening the season against familiar faces.

''Once you're out there playing - and I'm sure they would say the same thing - you're competing. It's just like any other week,'' Ryan said. ''I know they'll be well coached. That's probably the biggest thing going into it. I know they'll be well prepared on both sides of the ball.''

Coach Dan Quinn and defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux agreed that when the game begins, all that matters is how well the teams play.

''You always face former coaches and former teammates, week in and week out. It's the way the league is. Nobody ever really stays on the same team,'' Babineaux said.

''I'm blessed to be here for 12 years now. But it really doesn't happen anymore these days,'' the tackle added. ''I've got a lot of regard for Dirk and Smitty and what they did in the past here. I think they're going to have a successful program over there.

''But Sunday is about the Atlanta Falcons. There's a lot of new guys in this locker room who weren't even here when they were here. So it's really no rivalry. It's just a great divisional battle.''

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AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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