Four Downs: Falcons explode for 56 in record-setting trouncing of Bucs

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan set a franchise record with his 87.5 percent completion rate (21 for 24) on Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Atlanta pasted the Bucs in the Georgia Dome, 56-14.

Dale Zanine

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons gave the scoreboard a workout, and moved to 2-1 on the season by beating the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers 56-14.

Here are four observations from the Thursday night beatdown:

Jackson’s 54 yards on Thursday night were well shy of the 84 he posted against the Buffalo Bills last season, the most he’s gained in a Falcons uniform. Jackson also crossed the goal line twice in that game, tied for the high mark while paying for Atlanta.

Jackson only had one touchdown against the Bucs, but he fought like a wild boar to gain two yards to get into that end zone in the third quarter.

Even though Jackson’s numbers on Thursday didn’t stack up formidably against his best results as a member of the Falcons, his effort did. Jackson’s performance was his best since arriving in Atlanta.

Jackson gained 28 yards on his first four carries of the game. He was moving quickly, more so than he had in a long time. He was also breaking tackles. It took more than one defensive player to bring Jackson down when he had the football. And tackles weren’t made on first contact.

The way in which a running back reads what’s happening in front of him determines how successful he’s going to be. As apparent by the many cuts he made against the grain, and holes he decided to hit, Jackson was seeing things before they happened. His reads were spot-on accurate.

Why was Jackson able to do so much with the football on Thursday?

The Falcons utilized a fullback for a good portion of the first half, and Patrick DiMarco did a sound job taking away at least one would-be tackler away from the mix on every play. The offensive line stepped up as well.

Jackson praised the offensive line after the game. He said his success came from the work they did up front. He enjoyed holes that the blockers in front of him opened, bigger holes than normal.

The line could also have been reacting positively to the return on rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. And there’s also a chance the five guys up front are starting to figure things out.

Matt Ryan was also 11 for 12 in the first quarter alone, and his 127 yards through the air put 14 points on the scoreboard quickly. Tampa Bay was forced to focus on stopping the pass, which opened up the box for Jackson.

Yardage and touchdowns, and the numbers that factor into the ground game, are so important to a running back. But watching Jackson, who is 31 years old and without a doubt on the backside of his career, turn on an extra gear to become more explosive and agile gives hope that the Atlanta rushing attack can begin a much-needed improvement.

Ryan threw for 289 yards and three touchdown passes and skipped the final quarter and a half of play.

The Falcons scored through the air on their first two possessions, and posted 35 points by halftime. When Atlanta crossed the goal line on its second and third drives (within a span of 13 seconds) of the third quarter, it became apparent Ryan was going to be given some rest.

Ryan’s last play of the game came at the 8:18 mark of the third quarter, with the Falcons up 49-0. Backup quarterback T.J. Yates took over from there.

Ryan now has 965 yards passing on the season, and has thrown seven touchdown passes. He didn’t hit either of those milestones until the fourth game of the 2013 season. In fact, this is the quickest Ryan’s posted 965 yards through the air ever in his career. He’s on pace to eclipse the 5,000-yard mark in the final game of the season.

In each of the last three seasons, Ryan’s posted more than 4,000-yards. The next step in his evolution is to join the names Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees as the only members of the 5,000-yard club.

Speaking of records, Ryan completed 87.5 percent of his passes (21 for 24) against the Bucs, setting a franchise record in the process. His 155.9 passer rating was also the highest of his career.

When Ryan is allowed time to throw the football, something he enjoyed in Week 1 and Thursday against the Bucs, he can manipulate the Atlanta offense to put up some serious numbers.

Coming into this Week 3 matchup with the Bucs, Atlanta was the only NFL team without a sack. The pass rush for this team had been pretty non-existent.

Jonathan Massaquoi ended the drought when he sacked Josh McCown in the second quarter. The floodgates then opened. Stansly Maponga and Corey Peters added to the bounty, raising Atlanta’s sack total from zero to three in one game.

The Falcons harassed both McCown and then Mike Glennon when he came in to replace the injured starter. The effects of the pass rush were apparent; McCown threw an interception, and both passers made multiple mistakes.

The pass rush wasn’t the only buzz saw portion of this defense on Thursday.

Atlanta Falcons: Next Up

The Bucs were forced into five fumbles (four lost), and the Atlanta defensive line put up six tackles for loss, included four from Peters. The Falcons’ defense posted seven quarterback hits, and safety Kemal Ishmael returned his interception 23 yards for a touchdown.

Atlanta’s defense was quick to the football, sound in the secondary in coverage, and only allowed Tampa Bay two first-half first downs, and none in the first 22 minutes of play.

With his 62-yard punt return for a touchdown, Hester broke Deion Sanders’ record of 19 career return touchdowns. Hester paid tribute to the Hall of Famer on his 20th, by high-stepping into the end zone just like Sanders.

As special of a moment as that was, Hester did so much more for this Falcons team.

Prior to the punt return, Hester marched into the end zone on a 20-yard run. He added a 25-yard reception, and even stripped the football from Mark Barron after he’d picked up a loose football that Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo put on the ground.

Hester did a little bit of everything in Thursday’s win, and his prowess in the return game has been a boon to the Falcons. But Hester’s addition on offense has been key too.

With seven receptions for 126 yards, and one carry for 20 yards and a score through three games, Hester has been much more valuable to this offense than expected. Hester didn’t catch a pass at all last season with the Chicago Bears; he was utilized solely as a return specialist.

The Falcons have found ways to gain from Hester’s versatility.