Yes, there were extenuating circumstances. Tyron Smith, arguably the best left tackle in the league, was sidelined with back and groin injuries.
Clayborn utterly exposed Smith’s replacement, Chaz Green. Pro Football Focus credited Clayborn with six pressures and a quarterback hit in addition to his six sacks. He was rewarded with nearly the highest grade PFF will give, a 99.9.
The pressure threw Dak Prescott off all day. He passed for just 176 yards. He put up 42 yards and a touchdown on the ground, partly out of necessity. Clayborn and the Falcons kept Prescott on the run to try and avoid that pass rush.
Green wasn’t going to live up to the play of Smith. But his play was far beneath the standard set by Smith. Green graded out with a 14.2 from Pro Football Focus. He gave up four sacks, three hurries, and a hit against Atlanta. Even after the Cowboys started adding an additional blocker to slow Clayborn down, he still got pressure.
“We tried to get help with a lot of the passes we had whether it was a left formation or having a back be over there to try to chip on the way out,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after the game. “There were some situations where we were throwing it quicker. The ball was supposed to come out quicker and he didn’t have help.”
The Cowboys had no choice but to pull Green from the game. His performance was so poor that Green apologized for it after the game. It was too late to turn things around thanks to Clayborn’s dominance. Even Green’s replacement, Byron Bell, gave up a sack to Clayborn.
Only one player in NFL history has more sacks in a single game than Clayborn had on Sunday. That’s Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, who notched seven for the Chiefs against the Seahawks 17 years and a day before Clayborn’s big game.
Clayborn told NFL Network’s Deion Sanders on NFL GameDay Prime that it was an “awesome feeling.”
“It’s surreal to be in the likes of that man and what he’s done for the game,” Clayborn said. “But I’m blessed and I’m honored to be in the likes of those guys.”
Clayborn has been reliable for the Falcons this season, but he flies under the radar. His play on Sunday set high marks that won’t be easy for anyone to break, or for Clayborn to replicate.
- This was only the second multi-sack performance of Clayborn’s seven-year career. The first was last season against the Packers. He had two.
- Clayborn set a Falcons franchise record for the most sacks in a single game with his big day against the Cowboys.
- Vic Beasley is the Falcons’ best pass rusher. He led the league in sacks last season with 15.5. Until Sunday, he led the Falcons in sacks with four on the season. Now Clayborn has twice as many sacks as Beasley on the year.
- Atlanta’s eight sacks were the most Dak Prescott has taken in a single game in his career. His previous high was four against Washington in Week 2 of his rookie season. Clayborn surpassed that on his own on Sunday.
- It wasn’t just the sacks. Clayborn also forced two fumbles against the Cowboys.
Clayborn’s friendly and funny and well-liked by his teammates. But he’s soft spoken. He’s not the type of guy to puff himself up, even after a game like that. His teammates had plenty to say about his play on Sunday, though.
Matt Ryan called Clayborn’s performance “unbelievable.”
“He was getting off of the ball really well and it didn't look like they could stop his pass rush,” Ryan said. “I'm so proud and happy for him. He's absolutely the best teammate you could ask for. He works extremely hard day in and day out. He doesn't say a lot, but he's a leader on our football team. Guys see the way that he handles his business day in and day out.”
Free safety Ricardo Allen egged Clayborn on.
“I went up to him and said anyone can do it five times and he said he could get the sixth one,” Allen said. “He ended up going and getting it. That is an amazing game for a guy who comes in every day and prepares as hard as he does.”
Clayborn set the tone for the defense with his relentless play. This was by far the best game for this Falcons defense this season, and it helped get the team back above .500.
It was a special performance from Clayborn, and one we’re not likely to see again. It’s also one that Prescott and the Cowboys won’t soon forget.