By Nick Shook
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Adrian Clayborn took advantage of a Tyron Smith-less Cowboys offensive line and the Atlanta Falcons(5-4) rolled the Cowboys (5-4) in Dallas’ first game without suspended Ezekiel Elliott.
1. This Cowboys team is a shell of itself when it’s missing Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith. That much was evident from the beginning in how often Dak Prescott was pressured, and it became even more obvious when the Cowboys found themselves trailing and forced to throw. Adrian Clayborn absolutely dominated Chaz Green in pass-rushing scenarios, utilizing speed rushes, bull rushes, spins and rips to rack up six sacks and a forced fumble. Instead of being an offense that can move the chains when it needs to and will grind out long touchdown drives on the back of Elliott, it became one featuring Prescott throwing for his life. On Sunday, that wasn’t enough to beat a Falcons team that played inspired football for 60 minutes.
2. For some perspective, Clayborn recorded 7.5 sacks combined between 2015-2016, had two entering today’s game and hadn’t cracked six in a season since his rookie campaign of 2011, when he was with Tampa Bay. His performance was statistically fantastic and even better on tape, but shouldn’t be expected frequently. After the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones droned on about the “wide nine” alignment Atlanta employed with Clayborn (and others), but the alignment wasn’t the key to his success. It was more about the inadequacy of Dallas’ left tackles, with most of the focus being on Green, who was benched in the fourth quarter.
3. Dallas is going to have to figure out how to reinvent itself without Elliott, who is currently serving a six-game suspension. A slog of a first half became an uphill climb for the Cowboys in the second half, and an inability to run the ball effectively only further inhibited Dallas’ chances to mount a comeback. Alfred Morris is a competent runner, but he’s no Elliott. Of his 53 yards (on 11 carries), 20 came on one run. Prescott finished second for the team in rushing with 42 yards on six carries. The Cowboys miss Elliott more than even we thought they would.
4. Adrian Clayborn will be the one headlining these recaps, and rightfully so, but he wasn’t the only Falcons defender wreaking havoc. Brooks Reed found some success rushing off the edge, De’Vondre Campbell recorded 13 tackles and Atlanta’s defense bottled up the run while slowly building a lead on the other side of the ball. It was an incredibly encouraging performance from a team that surely needed one after its recent skid.