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Falcons vs. Cowboys recap: Atlanta’s best win of the season means hope for the future

Atlanta beats the hell out of a depleted Dallas team.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

I’ll be blunt: Even with Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott out, I was worried the Dallas Cowboys would beat the Atlanta Falcons. Once Atlanta threw an interception on their first series and surrendered an early lead, that worry cemented into an ugly probability in my mind, and I braced for what was coming next.

So imagine my surprise when what followed was pure dominance by Atlanta, a 27 point explosion with zero points from Dallas, and a truly historic performance from an underrated defensive end. Imagine my surprise when the Falcons ended Sunday night at 5-4 and looking like the best versions of themselves once again, just in time for a road trip to Seattle. It was an encouraging, surreal performance that re-kindled my hope for this Falcons team, and minus that one unfortunate pick, they did all the things they were supposed to do in this one.

Start with the offense, which lost Devonta Freeman almost immediately. They got an efficient performance from Matt Ryan, a season-best game from Tevin Coleman, and great performances from virtually all their receivers, which helped make up for the fact that the Cowboys were killing the Atlanta offensive line early on. They managed 27 points on the day, and the execution was excellent and Steve Sarkisian’s play calling was, I thought, very good.

Then pivot to the defense, which turned in its best performance of the year. The Falcons exploded for eight sacks, nearly had two picks, and forced two fumbles while holding Dallas to just seven points in the contest. Adrian Clayborn basically single-handedly won this game for the defense with six sacks and two forced fumbles that simultaneously incapacitated and demoralized the Cowboys, and the rest of the defense did everything they needed to do to stymie Prescott, the team’s only effective player.

It was the kind of dominant effort that can make you believe dangerous things, like Atlanta going on a run and being able to handle contenders. If they’ve truly turned the corner, those dangerous thoughts may even come true, but for now it’s too soon to say whether this will be that inflection point or simply the 2014 beatdown of the Buccaneers. No matter what happens from here, though, this was exactly the kind of enjoyable beatdown we needed to stay invested in and happy with this team.

Seattle’s next, but at this moment in time, the Falcons look like a resurgent offense and excellent defense in search of better results. The Falcons thus far have been defined by their frustrating inability to string together quality performances, so they’re once again at an important crossroads. This was their first truly dominant win, however, and thus a reason for a spark of optimism at last.

Here’s our full recap. Enjoy, please.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan was truly excellent in this football game. He had a bit of a high throw to Mohamed Sanu on his interception and one overthrow to Marvin Hall, but otherwise he showed excellent pocket presence with the line collapsing around him and stepped up to throw lasers all over the field. He finished with 22 completions on 29 attempts, 215 yards, two touchdowns, and one unlucky pick. The latter have defined his season to this point, but the former numbers should be considered a good sign.
  • With Devonta Freeman out, Tevin Coleman had to carry the load, and he did. After getting repeatedly stymied early on, he and the offensive line found a bit of a rhythm, and he finished with a respectable 83 yards on 20 carries, with a touchdown plunge in the mix. He is a very different runner from Freeman, and it will change the offense if he needs to be the featured back going forward, but I have a lot of confidence in his ability.
  • Julio Jones was quiet—he had just six catches for 57 yards—but each catch was made with a high degree of difficulty, and he delivered. He almost always does.
  • Taylor Gabriel had his best game of the season, and it’s no coincidence that coincided with one of the team’s better offensive performances. He finished with a team-high 58 yards on three receptions and added a 15 yard carry, punishing the Cowboys defenders every time he got the ball in his hands.

    When the team springs Gabriel and allows his speed to shine, the Falcons are a much more dangerous football team, and I hope they learn from that.
  • The offensive line really rallied nicely in the second half after a very rough first half. The Falcons picked up 17 points after halftime and looked much better running the ball, and the line deserves a lot of credit for not just falling apart.
  • Adrian Clayborn had an easy matchup in Chaz Green, sure, but he was absolutely dominant in this one. He had three sacks and a forced fumble in the first half, plus a hit that forced a third down Dak Prescott throw right into the dirt, and he looked like the most dominant player on the field, period, in that half of football.

Then Clayborn got a fourth sack in the second half. And then a fifth. And then a sixth, with an accompanying strip that resulted in a Falcons turnover. It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen by a Falcons defender, even with the level of competition, and an absolute joy to watch.

  • Brooks Reed got his fourth sack. At last!
  • Dontari Poe got a sack. At last!
  • Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford each had a shaky play or two early—though Trufant got a pick called back by penalty—but Dak Prescott isn’t sitting there for Adrian Clayborn to destroy if the coverage breaks down, and the coverage rarely broke down. The Falcons’ secondary doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for the work it does, so shout out to them.
  • I said after the Jets and Panthers games that I felt like Steve Sarkisian had done a better job calling those games, even if the Carolina game was marred by absolutely atrocious execution. If those were encouraging signs, this game was the first effort since Green Bay where I felt like the offense was firing on all cylinders and creative enough to win. Sark and company managed to spring Taylor Gabriel, feature Tevin Coleman effectively, and overcome the loss of Devonta Freeman. All in all, an encouraging game for the players and the coach alike, and one that should temporarily quiet the #FireSark talk.

The Ugly

  • The pass protection and run blocking were very brutally bad at times in this game, something that could be a limiting factor against a defense that has it together a bit more. Wes Schweitzer struggled again, which is getting a bit worrisome, and overall the line just wasn’t getting it done early on. They rallied, as I mentioned above, but this team will be somewhat capped by how well their offensive line fares.
  • What else am I really going to linger on right now? I’m happy, you should be happy, let’s all be happy.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Adrian Clayborn. My god, he ate Dallas! All of it! He didn’t even use a fork.

One Takeaway

This Falcons team truly does still have dominant performances within them. We had hoped, but seeing it confirmed matters a great deal with the playoffs still within striking distance.

Next Week

The Falcons take to the road one more time to face off against the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle’s a bit of a mess at the moment, so the Falcons will hope they can take advantage. Check out the excellent Field Gulls for more.

Final Word