Despite being one of Atlanta’s more consistent pass rushers, Adrian Clayborn never quite gets the appreciation that he deserves. His versatility gives Dan Quinn more flexibility with his deep rotation. Quinn has decided to use Clayborn more often off the edge this season. Although the sack total was down compared to last year, he still generated a fair amount of pressure. His hard work was finally rewarded with a six-sack explosion.
The Falcoholic’s finest Charles McDonald joins me to dissect Clayborn’s memorable performance. Charles does excellent work for Football Outsiders, along with co-hosting the “Setting the Edge” podcast. He loves defensive line play more than almost anything else in life. The timing couldn’t have been better.
I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. We are going to break down five of his six sacks. The second sack will be left out, as it was essentially a cleanup sack from spying Dak Prescott. Each play showcases Clayborn beating Chaz Green or Byron Bell off the edge.
First quarter: 2nd and 9 at ATL 37
Strk: It didn’t take long for Clayborn to get rolling. With All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith suffering from back and groin issues; it forced Green back into the starting lineup. Jonathan Cooper previously replaced the former third round pick at left guard. Green still had some value as a backup. He played right tackle for the majority of his college career. Since Vic Beasley primarily rushed from the left side, Dallas figured to leave La’el Collins on the right and let Green cope with a variety of Atlanta’s pass rushers.
That variety was quickly eradicated by Clayborn’s success. He used the signature cross chop move to perfection. After signing with Atlanta in 2015, the versatile lineman did extensive training under the great Chuck Smith. Learning how to use his hands better was vital for his development. The cross chop proved to be his calling card, as it brings out the best in his violent style. Clayborn uses his left hand to swat Green’s left forearm down. It ruins the young lineman’s opportunity of trying to gain any sort of leverage. That creates an opening for Clayborn to get the party started.
McDonald: Clayborn didn't pull too many exotic pass rush moves out of his bag on his record day. Clayborn stayed with the basics on most of his successful rushes. His first sack was just a chop move paired with a speed move. Green didn't have a real chance to block him once his hands were knocked away.
Second quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 39
Strk: Clayborn shows off his power on this occasion. After beating him earlier on another cross chop that nearly led to a sack, Green is anticipating him to use it again. His hands are upright and ready for combat on the outside. That leaves him prone to getting bull rushed. Clayborn doesn’t have blistering speed or tremendous power, yet still knows how to combine both traits off the edge.
This sack doesn’t come from simply being stronger and more relentless. His movement allows him to make a game-changing play. Clayborn manages to burst right under Green’s chin. From leading with his left shoulder, he drives Green back to get inside and secure a favorable angle. That gives him an opportunity to spin away and chase down Prescott. It’s a very instinctive play based on keeping a young, untested lineman guessing and exploiting his lack of strength. Clayborn caps off a stellar first half by taking the ball out of Prescott’s hands. It doesn’t get much better than a sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery trifecta.
McDonald: On this sack, Clayborn executed a near-perfect spin move. He bull rushed his way to the depth of the quarterback in the pocket, then spun his way into a sack. Green never made a real attempt to punch Clayborn after he got into his pass set; Clayborn was able to immediately get into his chest before hitting the spin.
Third quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 12
Strk: Clayborn wasn’t exaggerating when he said he used one move. Besides a pure bull rush, he was reliant on the cross chop. Why get away from something that is clearly working? This isn't the first time he exploited a backup tackle. Clayborn made Ulrick John and Greg Robinson look hopeless at times earlier in the season. Lining up in a wide nine position, the former first round pick gets another dream one on one matchup with Green.
It’s another classic Clayborn sack. He pins Green’s left arm down to create space for him to explode and launch himself into Prescott. It’s a fairly simple maneuver, if you possess enough power and master it. You can tell Clayborn spent countless hours honing his craft to effectively use this move. Dan Quinn deserves credit for targeting a clear mismatch. Instead of getting fancy and giving other players a chance to exploit Green on clear passing downs, he made sure the most violent defensive lineman on the roster battered him into submission.
McDonald: Again, Clayborn came with the speed to chop move. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Green didn't have an answer for even the most basic moves on Sunday.
Third quarter: 3rd and 12 at DAL 23
Strk: After failing to give Green any support, it appears that the Cowboys want Cooper to help his fallen teammate. The finger point makes it look obvious. Due to Green bizarrely staying inside, it renders his help useless. He can only watch the annihilation unfold. Green may have been anticipating a bull rush. Regardless of what was expected, he should know Cooper is giving him inside support. Clayborn steps outside to execute the cross chop on a lunging wrong-footed Green for the umpteenth time.
It’s remarkable that Dallas still isn’t providing any help for Green here. Good teams know how to make adjustments. Losing two elite players in Smith and Ezekiel Elliott certainly affected them. You figure they would devise a structured game plan to cope with both losses. They ended up leaving Green isolated, which showed their negligence. Is it difficult to use a running back or tight end to chip Clayborn? Can you not slide your protection to the left? Clayborn didn’t only benefit from going up against a backup. He benefitted from Jason Garrett’s inability to adapt when his team isn’t 100 percent.
McDonald: Clayborn came with the chop move again, but this time he added an inside fake to the beginning of it. It's fairly amazing for him to run through the same move almost every single rush, but hey, it worked.
Fourth quarter: 2nd at 2 at DAL 35
Strk: Dallas inserted Byron Bell into the game to stop the bleeding. Bell is a familiar foe, as John Abraham dominated him years ago. His poor hands and lack of discipline forced Carolina to give up on him, and those issues were evident on Clayborn’s final sack. After seeing Green get obliterated by the same move, wouldn’t the coaching staff tell him to beware of the cross chop?
It’s not easy to defend the cross chop. A violent player like Clayborn can generate so much power when knocking the blocker’s left forearm down. When the chop works, it gives the pass rusher’s outside arm space to obtain leverage and hunt down the opposing quarterback. Clayborn will incorporate a rip move to finish off the sequence if necessary. That wasn’t required on this occasion, as he gets past Bell with ease. What makes this play even more impressive is Clayborn barely gets into his stance before the ball is snapped. The veteran defensive end doesn’t let that hinder him and earns his second forced fumble in high-flying fashion. Not a bad leap for a 280 pound lineman.
McDonald: Clayborn came back to the inside-out chop move, but this time he was able to get the strip on Prescott. Defensive line coaches always teach to go for the ball as you reach the quarterback on your rush, and Clayborn pulled it off perfectly here.