Sep 18, 2014 11:14 PM
Hester, Falcons take 56-0 lead in 3rd quarter
The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) Devin Hester high-stepped to an NFL record with his 20th career touchdown return, Julio Jones caught two scoring passes and the Atlanta Falcons led Tampa Bay 56-0 after three quarters Thursday night in their NFC South matchup.
Hester ran back a punt 62 yards down the left side midway through the second quarter to give the Falcons a seven-touchdown lead. He has 14 career punt return TDs, five scores on kickoffs and one on a fumble return.
The previous record was held by Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, a former Falcon who was working the game as a television analyst. Sanders was on the video board smiling and raising his arms as the public address announcer told the Georgia Dome crowd about Hester's achievement.
The Falcons tied a team record for largest halftime lead at 35 points. They were up 42-7 against Tampa Bay on Jan. 1, 2012.
Hester, who spent the first eight years of his career with the Chicago Bears before signing as a free agent with Atlanta, copied Sanders' renowned high step, putting his left arm up beside his helmet after he ran past punter Michael Koenen to high-step the last 20 yards.
Hester left the game with cramps late in the second quarter but returned in the third. He also recovered a fumble and had a 20-yard touchdown run.
Jones made an acrobatic, 49-yard catch midway through the third, looking first over his left shoulder for quarterback Matt Ryan's deep pass and then adjusting to catch the ball over his right shoulder to beat cornerback Alterraun Verner and make it 42-0.
Jones had nine catches for a career-high 161 yards.
Ryan threw touchdown passes to Jones and Harry Douglas on Atlanta's first two possessions, and the Falcons made it 21-0 when safety Kemal Ishmael picked off Josh McCown's pass for a touchdown late in the first.
Atlanta had 24 first downs and 457 yards of total offense entering the fourth. The Bucs had six first downs and 151 yards.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters hit the 35-year-old McCown as he let the ball go on the interception, giving Atlanta some rare quarterback pressure. The Falcons began the night as the only NFL team without a sack through the first two weeks.
McCown did not return after injuring his thumb late in the second and was replaced by Mike Glennon. Douglas sustained a foot injury in the second. His return was questionable.
Ryan was 21 of 24 passing for 286 yards. Coach Mike Smith gave him the rest of the night off after Steven Jackson ran for a 2-yard score to make it 49-0.
Steven Jackson ran 14 times for 54 yards.
Following a lost fumble by Bucs running back Bobby Rainey late in the first quarter and a recovery by Atlanta safety Dwight Lowery, Hester ran around left end for a 20-yard score on the first play of the second quarter to make it 28-0.
Hester's second TD was set up after Falcons running back Antone Smith lost a fumble at the Tampa Bay 1 and the Bucs went three-and-out.
Atlanta scored on the game's opening possession, going 70 yards in six plays to take a 7-0 lead on Ryan's 3-yard pass over the middle to Douglas.
Both teams were missing key players. The Falcons, 1-1 after a loss at Cincinnati, were missing four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Tampa Bay, coming off close home losses to Carolina and St. Louis, played without All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Mason Foster and running back Doug Martin.
McCoy couldn't play because of a broken hand. A separated shoulder sidelined Foster and a knee injury sidelined Foster.
The Falcons caught a big break on their second drive. Tight end Levine Toilolo lost a fumble following a 13-yard catch to the Tampa Bay 23, but receiver Hester got the ball back, stripping it away from safety Mark Barron and recovering it at the 37.
Seven plays later, Jones caught an 8-yard TD pass from Ryan to make it 14-0.
The Bucs had been hoping to avoid losing their first three games under new coach Lovie Smith.
Antone Smith added a 38-yard TD run late in the third to make it 56-0.