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‘Coach, I can beat this guy’: An oral history of Adrian Clayborn’s historic six-sack gam


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https://theathletic.com/1165931/2019/08/27/coach-i-can-beat-this-guy-an-oral-history-of-adrian-clayborns-historic-six-sack-game/

 

It didn’t take long to realize Adrian Clayborn would be in for a big day.

Just five minutes into the first quarter of the Falcons’ 2017 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Clayborn beat tackle Chaz Green off the snap in a matter of milliseconds. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was looking down the field at two receivers running deep, with two other targets running underneath.

But with Clayborn barrelling down on Prescott, there was no time for him to get the ball off. Clayborn wrapped up Prescott, drove him to the ground, stood up and celebrated the sack. It was the first of a historic six-sack day for Clayborn, who set a single-game franchise record with the performance.

Clayborn entered that game, the ninth of the 2017 season for Atlanta, with two sacks. He came out of it with eight and ended up leading the team in sacks with 9.5 by the season’s end.

After spending last year with New England, and earning a Super Bowl ring, Clayborn returned to the Falcons for the 2019 season. With Clayborn back on the roster, he and his teammates looked back at this monumental achievement.

It might make for a better story if there was something obviously different about Clayborn heading into this particular game. It sure would make for better banter to know if he was out for revenge or had an issue with a particular Cowboys player. 

Instead, Clayborn showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that day like any other game day. No one had a clue or could have come close to predicting what was in store. 

Linebacker Deion Jones: A.C. is a very calm-before-the-storm kind of person. You see his energy, but you don’t really feel it. Just looking at him, it looked like any other game. He was ready. But you never would have thought he was going to have six sacks.

Safety Keanu Neal: Same guy. That’s just him, though. He’s always preparing, working hard. He’s on the quiet side, but that’s just the type of person he is. He’s a great teammate. His preparation is always the same each week. Going into the game it was the same against anyone else, going into any other game.

Defensive line coach Jess Simpson, who was an assistant defensive line coach at the time: That’s the thing about AC. When people say he didn’t appear any different, that’s because he prepares the same way every week.

Safety Ricardo Allen: The thing about AC is you can never tell anything is different. The way he goes by every week, you can never tell which teams he has vendettas over. You can’t. He’s just such a chill dude. He is who he is all the time. The way he goes about work, the way he does his warm-up, you can never tell if there’s a difference. … That game was one of those games where he just put it all together. He found a matchup he liked and made the most of it. He didn’t slow down.

There was one major thing working in Clayborn’s favor this week, but the Falcons truly didn’t know about it until that Saturday afternoon. During Dallas’ previous game, starting left tackle Tyron Smith was injured, with the team making him a late scratch only one day before facing Atlanta. That meant Green, who was in his third NFL season, was slated for the start. 

Did Clayborn’s eyes and ears perk up at this news? Maybe, maybe not. 

Clayborn: I didn’t know nothing about the guy. I didn’t know what to expect. I just took what he gave me.

Jones: He understood what was up that week, and he took complete advantage of it, with his preparation and how he went for it. He didn’t slow down one bit.

Only five minutes ran off the clock before Clayborn brought Prescott to the turf for the first time. In the second quarter, Clayborn recorded his second sack, albeit in unusual fashion for a defensive lineman. Clayborn actually dropped into coverage with a blitz coming from the other side of the formation. 

Atlanta’s back end covered well, which forced Prescott to move up through an escape lane that formed to his left. This played right into Clayborn’s hands. As Prescott started running, Clayborn closed quickly for his second sack of the game. 

The third sack came with only 15 seconds to go in the first half. Clayborn bull-rushed Green into the backfield and used a nifty spin move before sacking Prescott. In the process, he knocked the ball loose. Clayborn was able to recover the ball, too, which prevented Dallas from attempting a late-half field goal. Clayborn described this sack as has his favorite of the day. 

With Clayborn notching three sacks before halftime, his teammates started to notice something special was taking place. 

Neal: After the third sack, I started thinking, “How many more is he going to get?”

Defensive end Vic Beasley: After the first two sacks, and then the third — you’re like, “OK, it’s the first half, he’s up to something.” You expect the offense to make some adjustments, but I’m not sure if they adjusted as much as they thought they should have, looking back. But after the first half, you’re like, “If he keeps going and we keep playing the way we’re playing, he could eventually break the record.”

In the locker room at halftime, it was a situation akin to a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter. No one wanted to bring up the sacks to Clayborn.

Jones: We kinda didn’t want to talk about it. We wanted to let him do his thing and congratulate him at the end. We knew he still had more to go. We didn’t want to cloud his mind like he was finished because he was having such a good day. You don’t want to get in his head.

Neal: You gotta stay away from him and let him play his game. When you’re on, you’re on. He was on that day.

Clayborn did talk to Simpson about the upcoming second half. 

Simpson: I remember, maybe at halftime, him saying, “Coach, I can beat this guy.”

After the break, Clayborn continued to attack. His fourth sack came with 4:35 to go in the third quarter. Clayborn prevented Green’s hands from touching him and was able to sack Prescott yet again. 

Head coach Dan Quinn: For those who study him, he’s got really two moves. One’s called a chop club, where as a guy is throwing his hands at you, you knock one down, and you throw a big club. The offset of that is going into his power rush. In those moments, how you make one of them look exactly identical — think of the baseball player who can rip a 100 mph fastball. Why is the changeup such a good pitch? Because you’re ready to rip it, and then, “Ah! It’s at a different one.” Kind of the whole art of pass rushing is making one thing look the same, and it could be two different ones. I thought, on that night, specifically, (he was) really in sync with both of those.

Clayborn’s teammates figured the Cowboys would start double-teaming Clayborn or at least help Green to some degree. Much to their surprise — and liking — Dallas chose not to do so for the most part. 

Beasley: After the third sack, you’re like, “They’re going to start chipping, and they’re going to start putting extra guys over there.” They might’ve done that a couple of times, but I didn’t see many chips over there. They just continued to trust in their tackle, and I think AC had his number that day.

Allen: That’s why he got six sacks. Six sacks versus a double and six sacks versus a single is still six sacks. It doesn’t matter. That’s their fault, no disrespect to them.

It was around this time when Wes Durham, the radio play-by-play man for Falcons games on flagship station 92.9 The Game, started to realize the historical significance that was taking place. The radio station’s researchers quickly looked up that Atlanta’s single-game record for sacks was five, officially set by Chuck Smith in 1997 and unofficially by Claude Humphrey before sacks were kept as a statistic. Durham said he recalled the broadcast team mentioning Clayborn’s record chase coming out of a commercial break. 

Durham: When it starts to happen and you start to figure it’s the same guy, it’s a little like basketball. You sense a guy is going to go for 30 or 40 (points). That’s when you start to almost steal. My job is to follow the ball, (color commentator) Dave (Archer’s) job is to watch the field. When you see a guy getting hot, you start watching, you start peeking a little bit. Players call it peeking, that’s what you’re doing. You’re seeing where he is.

Durham said this wasn’t the first time he saw Clayborn put forth a dominating performance. The first came back when he was in college at Iowa. 

Durham: I saw him in the (2010) Orange Bowl, where he basically destroyed one side of Georgia Tech’s line. He was unbelievable that night. In fact, I remember saying on air that I’ve seen this before, that this was the Orange Bowl. Except this is the Dallas Cowboys.

Clayborn’s fifth sack came on the ensuing drive, with 13:08 to go in the game. Again, Clayborn ran around Green and tracked down Prescott, who, in this moment, seemed to be feeling the effects of a constant pass rush. The Cowboys actually tried to double-team Clayborn on this play. But Clayborn beat Green to the punch, which prevented left guard Jonathan Cooper from helping out. 

Jones: Sometimes my back is turned. So I don’t see the sack, I just know it. I didn’t see all the moves and stuff until after. Watching film, I was like, “Wow.” The moves, one of them was a spin, it was nasty.

Simpson: He was winning with bulls. He threw a couple of counters in there. And he has a great cross chop. The thing is, he’s such a physical rusher. You can’t say, “Oh, he’s just an edge guy.” That day, it was one of those days where it was all working.

Neal: It was amazing, it was really cool to be a part of something like that. I love the guy, I love how he plays.

Durham: The building started to realize, “Oh God, this guy’s on fire. This guy can’t guard him.” I think the building was almost peeking, too. Everybody started watching him.

For his final sack, Clayborn was matched up against Byron Bell, who subbed in for Green late in the game. Clayborn used the same move that worked all day to beat Bell and was able to knock the ball out of Prescott’s hand before he could move his arm forward. Takk McKinley jumped on the loose ball, which gave Clayborn a stat line of six sacks and two forced fumbles.

Clayborn: I knew what I had, but I was just playing the game. I’d never had that many sacks. I was just staying in the motions in the game.

Jones: I just feel like it was his day. The stars aligned, and it was meant for him to have that type of day for us. To tell you the truth, it took a lot off of the covering guys, too. He took his game to another level to help us out.

Neal: It’s not too common. It’s one of the really cool moments, for sure, seeing that happen in person live. And the person who is doing it — he’s a good dude.

Beasley: You just salute him, bow to him. Man, he had a crazy day! It’s very rare to have a day like that. That’s like a linebacker having four picks in a day, something crazy like that. That was a special day for AC, and it was a very memorable moment.

After the game, a Falcons communications staffer located Clayborn, congratulated him and then asked whether he could walk with him for an on-camera interview with Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews. Initially, Clayborn said he didn’t want to do it. The two moved toward the tunnel that leads to the locker room, with the staffer practically negotiating with Clayborn to get him to do the interview. Reminded of the significance of recording six sacks in a game — which is tied for the second-most in the NFL history behind Derrick Thomas’ seven — Clayborn changed his tune. 

An easygoing person, Clayborn isn’t one to seek out attention. But realizing the history behind his performance, Clayborn agreed to the full media onslaught — local radio, the locker room scrum and a phone interview with SI’s Monday Morning Quarterback. 

Clayborn, before flashing a smile: If you haven’t noticed, I’m not really a fan of talking to reporters. I did the interviews and took it to the locker room.

Jones, also smiling: That’s the type of person AC is. I call him “Bad Mood A.” It always looks like he’s in a little bit of a bad mood, but he’s a good person, man.

Beasley: That’s his personality. He’s a chill guy. But he definitely goes hard on the field. It was a special moment for me because I’d never seen anything like that. I’ve never seen anyone put on a show like that. It was special for me to see something like that.

Neal: He works, and he keeps his head down. He doesn’t boast and brag. He is a great player. He can (brag), he just doesn’t. It’s not in him. For him to be humble and still grind the way he does and be the player he is, that gains my respect. That’s really cool. I’m sure that’s why a lot of the other guys like him, too.

Allen: I’ve watched AC long enough to know that he is who he is. He doesn’t do it for the people watching. He doesn’t do it for the cameras. That’s not him as a person.

Simpson: I remember everybody being so happy for him. That’s a big deal as a D-lineman. That’s a big day.

Quinn: Those are career nights that you have, so it’s kind of fun to put up on the shelf and talk about this one day 30 years from now.

Clayborn: It’s a cool moment, but first of all, it’s two years ago. Now, in the moment, it’s just another game. You celebrate and get back to work and play the next one.

Clayborn is entering his ninth NFL season and second stint with the Falcons. While recalling this historic game, those who played with him previously are ecstatic to have him back. 

Jones: You just missed him. He was here, I kind of grew with him. He was older, but I grew being on a team with him. Being young, we kind of have that college aspect that everybody’s going to be here for four years. Then when somebody’s gone, it’s like, “Oh, crap!” I feel like I didn’t embrace or get everything I needed to get out of him (the first time). Having him back is dope.

Simpson: He brings so much. Coaches can tell you what to do, he can model what to do. And also, he’s a great player, but he’s also a great person. The guys have so much respect and regard for him.

Beasley: It’s special. He went to New England, came out on the good side of things there, but it’s good to have him back because I know what he’s capable of.

Clayborn: It’s great to be back with my old teammates. It’s great to be back with the coaching staff. I look forward to picking up where I left off here.

 

 

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