A Sack-By-Sack Look at Adrian Clayborn's Dominance of the Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys entered Sunday with just a 41.5 percent chance of beating the Atlanta Falcons, per numberFire Live. The game was in Atlanta and Dallas was missing both Ezekiel Elliott and left tackle Tyron Smith. Elliott’s absence hurt, but Smith’s absence was disastrous. Little by little, the Falcons chipped away at Smith’s replacement, Chaz Green, and little by little, the Cowboys’ chances at winning the game diminished.
Atlanta’s main weapon against Green was Adrian Clayborn, who entered the game with two sacks on the season while playing just over half (52.6 percent) of Atlanta’s defensive snaps for the year. In this game alone, Clayborn had six sacks, which tied for the second-most in a single game since sacks were made an official statistic in 1982. He had one other quarterback hit and three tackles for loss. Atlanta also had two other sacks in the game and dominated the line of scrimmage for most of the afternoon. But for now, we’ll focus on Clayborn’s sacks and the way they shifted the game.
In total, Clayborn’s six sacks cost the Cowboys 17.1 percent in win probability and 15.16 Net Expected Points (NEP), our in-house metric. That was easily the biggest singular impact on the game. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had the fifth-best Week 10 for a quarterback, and he only added 9.96 Passing NEP against Dallas. Clayborn’s impact on the game came as early as Dallas’s first offensive drive.
Sack 1 - 10:06 first quarter, 2nd-and-9, ball on ATL 37
Win Probability Added: -3.64%
Clayborn’s first sack of the game came nine plays into the Cowboys’ first drive. Dallas had driven into Atlanta territory, and the Cowboys were closing in on field goal range to start the game off with a score. But on a 2nd-and-9, Clayborn lined up across from Green and blew right by him at the snap, with Green barely getting a hand on the defender. The sack lost five yards and set up a 3rd-and-14. An incompletion on third down forced the Cowboys to punt.
Sack 2 - 12:20 second quarter, 3rd-and-8, ball on ATL 37
At the exact same place on the field, Clayborn got his second sack early in the second quarter. He wasn’t an edge rusher on this play, though. Instead, he dropped back in coverage but kept his eye on the quarterback. As Dak Prescott left the pocket to scramble, Clayborn closed in and tackled the quarterback before he reached the line of scrimmage for a sack.
This play wasn’t as impressive -- or embarrassing from the Dallas perspective -- as the others, but it did help shift the game. Before this play, the Cowboys had a 7-3 lead and a 56 percent chance of winning the game. The third-down sack bumped that down to 51.8 percent. On fourth down, the Cowboys attempted a fake punt, but receiver Brice Butler was called for offensive pass interference and an actual punt was forced on the next play
Sack 3 - :15 second quarter, 1st-and-10, ball on ATL 39
Again, the Cowboys were around the same area of the field at the end of the second quarter. Atlanta had taken a 10-7 lead, but Dallas was driving for points to close the half. There were 15 seconds left, but the Cowboys still had a timeout remaining.
On this play, Clayborn was back on the line of scrimmage, and at the snap he pushed Green back into the pocket until a spin move freed him to chase down Prescott. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett got his hand on Prescott first, but Clayborn was there to make the tackle and force a fumble, which he also recovered. Not only did the sack put the Cowboys further away from field goal range to tie the game before the half, the fumble assured there would be no points scored at all.
Atlanta got the ball to start the second half and went 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
Sack 4 - 4:39 third quarter, 1st-and-10, ball on ATL 12
Dallas had driven 58 yards in six plays to set up and 1st-and-10 from the Atlanta 12, and each of the previous six plays had gained positive yards. This play would not gain positive yards as Clayborn struck again. At the snap, Clayborn ran right around Green on the edge, with the left tackle barely getting a slap in to deter the defender. Prescott took a big hit from behind and lost 12 yards on the play.
Not only did the sack diminish the chances of a touchdown, which would have put the Cowboys down by just three points, kicker Mike Nugent eventually missed a 38-yard field goal, so Dallas left the field with no points scored on the drive. After peaking with a win probability of 26.7 percent before the sack, the Cowboys left the drive with just an 11.3 percent chance to win the game.
Sack 5 - 13:11 fourth quarter, 3rd-and-13, ball on DAL 23
This sack had the least impact on the game. Dallas was deep in its own territory and trailing 24-7 with just a 1.34 percent chance of winning. Clayborn was so quick around the edge, he got past Green before left guard Jonathan Cooper could even get over to help.
Faced with a 4th-and-19 inside their own 20, the Cowboys had little choice but to punt the ball away.
Sack 6 - 3:27 fourth quarter, 2nd-and-2, ball on DAL 35
At this point in the game, the Cowboys had no chance of winning -- well, 0.01 percent if we want to be exact. Byron Bell had replaced Green at left tackle, but there wasn’t much of a difference here. Clayborn rushed around the edge was knocked the ball out of Prescott’s hand before the Dallas signal caller could throw. Takk McKinley was able to fall on the fumble for a Falcons recovery and the unofficial end to the game.
The NEP shift on this play was so big because it stopped a desperate Cowboys drive, but it also set up the Falcons in the field goal range. Atlanta almost scored on the next drive, a would-be 25-yard touchdown run from Tevin Coleman on 3rd-and-8 that was called back by holding. Instead, the Falcons ran two more plays and willingly turned the ball over at the 31-yard line, but the Cowboys just ran out the clock out with two running plays when they got the ball.
Over the next three weeks, the Cowboys face Philadelphia, Washington, and the Chargers -- teams that rank 6th, 1st, and 12th, respectively, in defensive pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. If left tackle Tyron Smith can’t get healthy, the Cowboys could have a long few weeks in front of them.
Dallas was competent running the ball without Ezekiel Elliott to the tune of 0.19 Rushing NEP per play, which was the third-best mark for any team in Week 10. In a more favorable game script, the Cowboys could have continued with the run game as a weapon.
For Atlanta, while the focus has been on the offense, the defense has struggled mightily this season. The Falcons entered the week 24th in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play as a team, and they were just 20th in defensive pressure rate before the sack barrage on Sunday. If the Atlanta defense can step up, the offensive woes might not seem as big of an issue. But for a team that still has to face Seattle, Minnesota, and New Orleans (twice) over their final seven games, that might not be the easiest task to accomplish.