Sep 18, 2014 10:20 PM
Hester helps Falcons take 35-0 halftime lead
The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) Devin Hester high-stepped to an NFL record with his 20th career touchdown return, Matt Ryan threw a pair of scoring passes and the Atlanta Falcons led Tampa Bay 35-0 at halftime 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. 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. He also recovered a fumble and had a 20-yard touchdown run.
Ryan threw touchdown passes to Julio 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 18 first downs and 300 yards of total offense in the first half. The Bucs had two first downs and 63 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 left the game late in the second with a thumb injury and was replaced by Mike Glennon. Douglas sustained a foot injury in the second. His return was questionable.
Ryan was 19 of 22 for 221 yards. Steven Jackson ran nine times for 48 yards and Jones had eight catches for 121 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 were hoping to avoid losing their first three games under new coach Lovie Smith.