Hester, Falcons run wild in rout of Buccaneers
ATLANTA — Devin Hester danced like Deion Sanders on his way into the NFL record book, and the Atlanta Falcons routed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 56-14 Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
With Sanders in the stadium, Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, high-stepping the final yards for the 20th return touchdown of his career. He broke Sanders’ record of 19 touchdown returns and gave the Falcons a commanding 35-0 lead in the first half.
Hester, in his first season with the Falcons (2-1), also ran for a touchdown and finished with 142 all-purpose yards. For his career, Hester has 14 punt-return touchdowns, five kickoff-return touchdowns and a missed-field-goal-return touchdown.
“It was emotional, breaking the record of a guy who is my mentor,” Hester said of Sanders. “He sends me a text every morning. That’s when I know it’s time to get up and get to work.”
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan shredded the banged-up Buccaneers for 286 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-24 passing before shutting it down midway through the third quarter.
It got embarrassing in the second half for the Buccaneers, who fell behind 56-0.
Ryan hooked up with wide receiver Julio Jones for a twisting, over-the-shoulder touchdown reception that made it 42-0 early in the third quarter.
On the first play of the Bucs’ next possession, a snap sailed over the head of backup quarterback Mike Glennon and was recovered by the Falcons at the Tampa Bay 2-yard line. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson bulled his way in for a touchdown on the next play to make it 49-0.
Falcons running back Antone Smith scored on a 38-yard run to make it 56-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
“I’ve never experienced that type of lead in the National Football League,” Smith said. “We did some really good thing, but I want to stress that it’s going to have no bearing on what is going to happen when we step on that plane and head to Minnesota (next week).”
Jones finished with 161 receiving yards and two touchdowns on nine catches.
The Bucs lost their first eight games last season and are now 0-3 in new coach Lovie Smith’s first year.
“I was embarrassed by our play,” Smith said. “We failed in all phases, of course. It starts with coaching. I thought I had us ready to play. Obviously, we weren’t ready to play.”
To make things worse, starting quarterback Josh McCown injured the thumb on his throwing hand in the first half and was replaced by Glennon. McCown finished 5-for-12 for 58 yards with an interception.
“I tried to grab the ball on the sidelines but just wasn’t able to grip it,” McCown said. “That was the main thing, that I couldn’t grip the ball. It was embarrassing. It’s not something that you want to be a part of.”
Glennon threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Vincent Jackson early in the fourth quarter, and Tampa Bay linebacker Danny Lansanah returned an interception of a T.J. Yates pass 27 yards for a the Bucs’ other points.
The Falcons opened in an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that produced points on their first possession. Ryan found wide receiver Harry Douglas in the back of the end zone on a 3-yard pass, capping a six-play, 70-yard drive that put Atlanta up 7-0 three minutes into the game.
It was only the beginning.
After an 8-yard Ryan touchdown pass to Jones, Falcons defensive back Kemal Ishmael picked off McCown and returned it 23 yards for a score.
Hester then took a reverse 20 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter, making it 28-0 Falcons. The next time he touched the ball, Hester raced 62 yards untouched by the Bucs’ punt coverage team.
The Falcons outgained the Bucs 300 to 63 in total yards in the first half, 488-217 for the game.
NOTES: The 56 points were the second most in a single game in Falcons history. … Atlanta scored 21 first-quarter points, the second most in one quarter in franchise history. … Falcons WR Roddy White (hamstring) was inactive. … Buccaneers starting RB Doug Martin, DT Gerald McCoy (hand) and MLB Mason Foster were inactive. … Falcons DE/OLB Jonathan Massaquoi and DT Corey Peters had sacks in the first half. Atlanta entered the game as the only team in the NFL without a sack.