Atlanta was owned by the Cowboys for the first 8 minutes of Sunday’s game. Xavier Woods intercepted Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott rushed for a touchdown and then the wheels were knocked off their bus.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn led a defensive effort that held the Cowboys to 233 yards of offense and their second-year quarterback looking over his shoulder going off the field. Atlanta’s defense sacked Prescott eight times including six by Clayborn.
In typical Clayborn fashion, he downplayed his accomplishment. “You can always envision, doesn’t mean that it is going to happen, but I’m blessed that I’m finally in my groove,” said the seven-year pro.
His teammates shared their excitement for the feat. “It was amazing,” said safety Ricardo Allen. Clayborn’s modesty is not to be confused with a lack of confidence. When safety Ricardo Allen said to him, “anyone can do it five times”. Clayborn responded, “he could get the sixth one.”
The first quarter went by quickly but not before Matt Bryant sent a 50-yarder between the uprights to cut into the Cowboys lead.
Going into the game the Cowboys knew they would be playing without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott and injured left tackle Tyron Smith. The seven-year pro out of Southern California protected Prescott’s blind side. Third-year utility lineman Chaz Green started in his place.
Prescott who had been sacked 10 times through eight games was a candidate for the cryogenic chamber and a blitz pack of Advil by the end of the fourth quarter. Clayborn and company amassed their sack total on the Dallas QB in three quarters starting with the second quarter.
Clayborn’s first sack put the Cowboys in fourth and eight at the Falcons 37. Dallas head coach Jason Garrett attempted to convert the down with a fake punt. The pass from punter Chris Jones to Brice Butler was nullified by an offensive pass interference call. “It would have been a good opportunity for us there to keep that drive alive,” explained Garrett of the trick play.
It was the beginning of the end for the Cowboys as the Falcons offense began to hit their stride.
Atlanta mounted an 80-yard scoring drive on the strength of 34 rushing yards and a 15-yard facemask penalty by Jeff Heath. The Dallas safety grabbed hold of Tevin Coleman’s face mask and helmet in a desperate attempt to keep the Falcons running back from gaining more than 19 yards. Mohamed Sanu’s 14-yard catch gave Atlanta its first red zone opportunity. Coleman finished what he started following defensive tackle Dontari Poe into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn had made red zone efficiency a top priority. He even put in an extra practice session to focus on it. The extra work paid off as the offense capitalized on three of its four red zone opportunities.
Clayborn made his presence felt again. This time in the midst of the Cowboys 2-minute drill. While sacking Prescott, Clayborn ripped the ball out of the quarterback’s hands to end the drive and any hopes Dallas had of putting up at least a field goal before the end of the first half.
The second half belonged to the Falcons. After six consecutive games without a touchdown in the third quarter, Atlanta finally found its mojo. Coleman and Julio Jones combined for 41 yards on the first two downs of the opening third-quarter drive. Coleman finished with 83 yards rushing with DeVonta Freeman sidelined in the first quarter due to a concussion.
Atlanta’s offense was clicking along. It faced third down only twice on the 11-play, 75-yard drive. Ryan capped the drive with a 3-yard strike to Justin Hardy who had worked his way along the back of the end zone.
Scoring touchdowns became contagious. Atlanta’s dry spell was apparently resolved at least for this game. Ryan threw a second touchdown on the Falcons next drive that bled over into the fourth quarter. Taylor Gabriel’s 34-yard catch and run moved the offense deep into Cowboys territory. Another big run by Coleman gave the Falcons another third red zone opportunity. Austin Hooper tried to dive into the end zone on the next play but came up a yard short. Ryan hit the second-year tight end at the 2-yard line with nothing but open space in front of him.
Clayborn registered his and Atlanta’s final sack of Prescott at the Dallas 27 and forced a fumble that Takk McKinley recovered to give Atlanta a +1 turnover advantage.
Poe and Brooks Reed also picked up sacks in the game. Prescott rushed for 42 yards but was sacked for -50 yards.
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