FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons know that if they are going to make some noise in 2016, they must do a better job within the NFC South division.
The Falcons open the season on Sept. 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who swept the series last season. The Falcons, who started last season 6-1, didn't make the playoffs because they went 1-5 in division, finishing 8-8 in 2015.
Smith was the winningest coach in Falcons history before he was replaced by Dan Quinn after the 2014 season.
The Falcons are hoping to be speedy on defense and are counting on quarterback Matt Ryan thriving in his second year in the offense.
After opening the season in Smith's return to the Georgia Dome, the Falcons play Oakland, then in New Orleans before hosting Carolina. Three of the first four games are in-division.
"It's going to be awesome," Quinn said. "I love the way that the league has set that up where three of the four are right off the bat. It's an area we didn't do a good enough job last year. We struggled against our very own division, which is a tough one."
The Falcons are expecting the Bucs' defense to be stingy.
"Mike is a helluva football coach," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "You never want to face coaches with the ability like Mike has. We actually talked (recently). We have a good relationship. ... With a guy like that in the league, it's important that he's coaching again. I'm really happy for him."
The matchup could be a tale of the paths of the two quarterbacks.
Some contend that Ryan, who is entering his ninth year, may be fading after a meteoric rise earlier in his career.
The sky is generally considered the limit for Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston. He was solid in both of the wins over the Falcons last season, which included him scrambling for a first down on a third down-and 19 to secure the win at home.
Ryan believes that he and the Falcons can return to respectability. He knows that it must start with a win over Tampa Bay.
"We have to create some explosive plays," Ryan said. "We are getting the ball down the field a little bit and that will help us out. We have to be a little bit more consistent. There is no question about that."
Ryan knows the Falcons must cut down on their turnovers. Ryan had 16 interceptions and eight fumbles. He accounted for 24 of the 30 turnovers last season.
"We can't turn the ball over in the red area," said Ryan, who had four such turnovers last season. "Those are big things. When we get opportunities to score points we have to take advantage of that."
A turnaround in the NFC South could be tricky proposition for the Falcons.
"It's always been a very competitive division," Falcons assistant head coach/wide receiver Raheem Morris said. "Smitty was here and so was Dirk. Sean Payton, all of those kind of guys. (Ron) Rivera in Carolina. Those guys have all been in it for a long time and you're talking about a bunch of really good coaches. You are talking about adding Dan Quinn to the mix."
Morris was formerly Tampa Bay's head coach.
Falcons vs. Bucs may rival the Falcons vs. Saints one day.
NOTES: WR Julio Jones tested his ankle before the preseason game against Jacksonville on Thursday night. Coach Dan Quinn is expecting to have him back at practice on Monday. ... QB Matt Simms completed 16 of 23 passes for 217 yards against Jacksonville. He finished the preseason by completing 26 of 39 passes for 353 yards and one touchdown. He had an 82.5 passer rating. ... SS Dashon Goldson, who was signed on Sunday, saw plenty of action with the Jacksonville reserves. ... FB Will Ratelle left the game with a left ankle injury. He walked off the field with the trainers but did not return to the game. ... FS Robenson Therezie, who had a spectacular interception and made a thunderous hit along the sideline on Jacksonville running back Corey Grant, left the game with a hand injury in the third quarter and did not return. ... DT Joey Mbu left the game with a hand injury. ... DE Dwight Freeney, who was signed on Aug. 2, played just eight snaps over the preseason games.