Remember when Adrian Clayborn went nuts and picked up a franchise-record six sacks in one game against the Cowboys? With Tyron Smith out, the journeyman pass rusher had the best game of his career and one of the most enjoyable memories I have from Falcons football over the past ten seasons.
This Sunday, the Falcons won’t have Adrian Clayborn, but they will once again be facing off against a Dallas team that may not have Smith and may have a backup who is struggling instead. Terence Steele was eaten alive by the Denver pass rush last week and the Dallas offense was unusually quiet, and that does not feel like a coincidence.
So the big question—and it’s one you’re going to laugh at initially, and possibly long after that—is whether this Falcons pass rush will prove to be capable of taking advantage of a plus matchup and causing some problems for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.
Of course, your ready answer for this one will be “no.” The Falcons are one of the least productive pass rushing teams in the NFL, with PFR having them tied for dead last in pressures with the Detroit Lions. If you don’t love the pressures stat, then you can look at their league-low 11 sacks, their 7th-lowest hurry rate or just the eye test, which tells you that quarterbacks are often able to get a moderately difficult crossword done before the pressure arrives. This team just hasn’t been consistently delivering that regard.
Aside from Steele, this is also not an easy matchup to exploit. Per Pro Football Reference, Prescott is facing pressure on just 18.1% of his dropbacks, which is the third-lowest percentage in the league. Matt Ryan, by contrast, has the eighth-highest rate at 25.7%, and Prescott has been sacked just 11 times on the season. He is a truly stellar quarterback, but that lack of pressure only serves to make him better.
Prescott is coming off his worst effort of the season against Denver, however, and he was sacked twice and pressured on 14 of his 39 attempts in that game. If the Falcons can bring the heat, they have a chance of disrupting this offense enough to let their own offense keep pace.
The reasons to believe they can? The Falcons might get Dante Fowler back this Sunday, which would give them their best edge rusher once again. James Vaughters delivered a big game a week ago, showing some ability to get pressure and getting a crucial strip sack on Trevor Siemian. This team still has Grady Jarrett, who is such an underrated wrecker of worlds. And Dean Pees has at least occasionally shown an ability to dial up an effective blitz, as he did last week when Erik Harris forced a panicked Siemian throw on a crucial drive.
It’s a longshot, even so, because this Falcons pass rush is unquestionably one of the worst in the NFL. I wouldn’t expect it, but with the confluence of the Dallas injury picture and Atlanta making small strides, let’s hope we’ll see the kind of pass rushing punch that would make Adrian Clayborn proud.