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Second half surge gets the Falcons back on track again

A dominant second half led by a dominant pass rush showed how dangerous the Falcons can be.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After weeks of wasted opportunities, questionable coaching, and mind-numbing penalties, the Falcons rediscovered their form that made them a championship-caliber team. The offense rebounded from adversity following the loss of Devonta Freeman and an unfortunate interception to start the game. For the third consecutive week, Matt Ryan showed tremendous poise in another efficient performance. Last season’s MVP appears to have fully bounced back from a difficult stretch in October.

The main story coming out of this game involves the defense. For the first time since beating Green Bay, they took charge and controlled the majority of the game. Adrian Clayborn’s historic performance certainly gave them a major boost. As Julio Jones alluded to, he set the tone for the entire team. With Dontari Poe and Brooks Reed also generating pressure, the Cowboys were left hopeless. Posting a shut out in the second half is impressive for any team. It means even more for the Falcons, considering how much they’ve struggled in the second half this season. What they did signified how important this victory was for them.

Clayborn takeover

Only four edge defenders have produced six sacks in one game. Clayborn joined that exclusive club in a magnificent way. The veteran lineman is usually one of the more reliable players on an inconsistent defense. Whether it’s coming off the edge or causing havoc inside, he always brings it. Not many defensive players are more violent and versatile than Clayborn. It’s a big reason why Quinn made it a priority to re-sign him last season, as Dallas was interested in signing him. It’s also why he remains as one of his true favorites.

Losing Tyron Smith was going to be a massive blow for the Cowboys. No team can properly replace an All-Pro talent. It’s still stunning for a team to allow six sacks in the same area. The player replacing Smith wasn’t exactly unheralded either. Chaz Green opened the season as their starting left guard. Due to a hip injury, Jonathan Cooper replaced the former third round pick. It made sense for Green to replace Smith based on his background. He entered the league as a tackle. Nobody could have anticipated the nightmare that eventually ensued in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Clayborn’s destruction started on the first drive. What makes him so effective is that he knows who he is as a player. He doesn't try anything out of the ordinary. There isn’t any flashiness or dazzling moves to his arsenal. Clayborn wins off pure power, explosiveness, and violent hand usage. Nobody knows how to use their hands better than him on the defensive line. The cross chop has become his signature move. Working with Chuck Smith proved to be a very fulfilling experience. It allowed Clayborn to establish a reliable move, which was on display for the first sack.

Versatility is one of the most significant elements to Quinn’s defense. That is why players like Clayborn and Courtney Upshaw were re-signed after playing on one-year “prove it” deals. On third down, Clayborn dropped back and spied Dak Prescott. It caught everyone off guard, since Vic Beasley is normally placed in that role. Clayborn perfectly handled the responsibility by never taking his eyes off Prescott. The subtle patience should be noted as well. Instead of rushing in to take him down, Clayborn reads his movement before landing a big hit. For a player that normally operates at an ultra-aggressive pace, he deserves praise for making a smart play.

It was bizarre to see Dallas not make any real adjustments. Clayborn had a distinct advantage over Green, yet they didn’t make much of an attempt to chip him. A variety of cross chops and bull rushes turned Clayborn into a one-man wrecking crew. His third sack erased Dallas’ chances of getting into field goal range before the half. The defense was tied for last in forcing turnovers. To help fix that issue, it starts with the pass rush generating more pressure. Clayborn was at the forefront of their resurgence.

Clayborn has always been perennially underrated. The box score numbers don’t usually match up with his overall performances. While Beasley developed into a star, Clayborn was arguably their most consistent pass rusher for the majority of the season. He generated more pressure and recorded more quarterback hits. Unfortunately, his tendency of missing by a half-second meant less appreciation. His tireless work rate was finally rewarded. Clayborn capped off a legendary game with a strip-sack against replacement tackle Byron Bell. Smith said that Clayborn would be close to ten sacks if he gets the reps. At eight sacks on the season, the former Falcon great looks to be spot on with his assessment.

Getting others involved

One of the key ingredients to the Falcons’ offensive brilliance last season was getting production from a wide variety of different players. Role players were constantly making game-changing plays. Taylor Gabriel scored seven touchdowns in a seven game stretch. Besides being an excellent run blocker, Justin Hardy made timely plays on third down. Aldrick Robinson had some memorable moments as a deep threat. When Julio Jones was sidelined with a sprained toe, they stepped up against the Rams and 49ers.

Similar to practically everything about last year, they have failed to replicate their success. Defenses know how to stop Gabriel by pressing him at the line of scrimmage. Hardy isn’t being used as much as he was last season. Both players finally made a major impact. Two of Gabriel’s three catches occurred on third down during the second half. The dynamic receiver made a tough catch in traffic to put the Falcons in striking distance. On the next drive, Gabriel found space on a slant and exploded downfield for 34 yards.

With the exception of Tevin Coleman, no other player has struggled to find their niche in Steve Sarkisian’s offense more than Gabriel. He isn’t finding many openings compared to last year, where Kyle Shanahan designed plays to get him the ball in space. Gabriel has started to make more explosive plays in the past two games. Hardy caught his second touchdown pass of the season. It was another third down conversion, as it shows how much trust Ryan has in both players. The offense is not only at their best when it’s balanced, but also when receivers like Gabriel and Hardy are contributing to their success.

The slump is over

After playing poorly during Atlanta’s three game losing streak, Ryan has responded with three strong performances. The resilient quarterback continues to not let unfortunate turnovers rattle him. His terrific pocket movement and intelligent decision-making propelled the offense, particularly in the second half. It was a methodical approach from him. As downfield opportunities were limited, Ryan attacked Dallas on shorter and intermediate throws.

Even though it has taken more time than expected, he is back to playing like his normal self. Ryan didn’t shy away from talking about how the offense has been playing pretty average football. Neglecting reoccurring problems will only result in the same negative outcomes. With better play calling from Sarkisian, they found a rhythm that had been lacking almost all season. Converting on third down and red zone situations certainly helped their efficiency. It starts with Ryan taking command and leading the offense.

Looking Ahead

There was genuine doubt about the Falcons’ playoff aspirations at this time last week. With a daunting stretch of games featuring several top NFC teams, many wondered if they were going to fall short. Beating Dallas was the first challenge towards getting back on course. An upcoming showdown against Seattle isn’t a must-win now following yesterday’s impressive victory. While they have flexibility, this matchup has become one of the better rivalries in football. It’s unfortunate that Richard Sherman won’t be there for the festivities. Similar to Ezekiel Elliott, this will be the first time Sherman isn’t on the field for Seattle. The timing could work out yet again for the Falcons.