The Atlanta Falcons started Week 10 with the 18th-ranked pass rush in the NFL with 18 sacks. They were closer to the bottom of the league (Tampa Bay, 8) than they were to the top, where Jacksonville sits with 35. By nightfall, they were tied for No. 7 and are now just three sacks out of second place.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys' offensive line trailed only the New Orleans Saints in protecting its quarterback. Drew Brees had been sacked eight times in 2017, with Dak Prescott at 10. The Cowboys' pass protection again had been one of the very best in the NFL. But, by the time they boarded their plane to head back to Dallas, the Cowboys had fallen behind Minnesota, Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams, Oakland, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Miami, all the way down to No. 10 in sacks surrendered.
It is very possible that by Tuesday, you don't want to think about the battering Prescott was forced to withstand in Atlanta, but the historical significance of what occurred Sunday compels us to make sure we record it in this "Decoding Linehan" space for future reference. No matter how bad things get for certain teams and players, it will likely not compare negatively to what the Falcons' front did to the Cowboys' offensive line.
Everyone took losses on snaps. Even the normally perfect Zack Martin gave up a rare sack. Travis Frederick was tossed aside disrespectfully a few times by Falcons defensive tackles. But the complete disaster at the left tackle position is where this game will rest upon. And rightfully so.
The only positive to take from the offensive performance as a whole is that it appears the quarterback is somehow no worse for wear. He might be bruised and sore, but it appears his currently durable body was able to endure this complete disaster. Teams get beat all the time in this league, but once you lose your QB1 for two months, the party is over. The Cowboys flirted with that disaster continuously (and needlessly a few times), but they still have a healthy quarterback. I will not undersell that.
Beyond that, what we do today is merely marvel at how a rather average defensive end with a rather average career destroyed the Cowboys' left tackle position in a way we may never see again.
Let's hope so, anyway.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Not a lot of good up there. Less than 4 yards per play! Just two trips to the red zone, and on one of those they took the ball at the 21! Seven points and 233 yards! All just awful.
Drive-killers will ruin your team. We consider "drive-killers" anything that brings your effort to a grinding halt. The most egregious of these will always be the sack -- you lose your down and you get your quarterback hit -- with holding being a slightly less penal version of it. With holding, you at least repeat the down and generally spare your quarterback the violence. But both effectively end the drive at a better-than-80-percent clip.
What makes the Cowboys' offense so impressive is that it avoids these as well as any offense in the sport. Through the first eight games, the Cowboys' offense had 85 drives, and of those 85, only four suffered actual drive-killers (all from sacks). They had given up other sacks and other holds, but to their credit had been able to survive them each time.
But Sunday was a different deal altogether. They suffered eight drive-killers in one game -- on only 10 drives! So, Games 1-8: 85 drives, four killed. Game 9: 10 drives, eight killed by sacks and/or penalties (pretty much all sacks).
I am willing to bet we won't see Chaz Green at left tackle again. I don't mean to be too difficult on the young man who is already taking heat from enough directions, but in professional sports, there is a bar you must reach each week or you are discarded and replaced rather quickly. He quite clearly did not come close to reaching it. Were there some mitigating circumstances we are unaware of? Perhaps. But either way, Tyron Smith is one of the best in the league and when he misses a game because his body cannot answer the bell, the Cowboys have to still be functional. They were not. Not even close.
The chart below shows the team's weekly ability to "stay ahead of the chains." Obviously, you want to -- ideally -- knock out a chunk on first down so you are around 7 yards on second down and a shorter distance on third down (5-6 yards to go is a fine average). If, like Sunday, your red line is longer than your blue line, you are going backward, and that means you are having some significant offensive issues.
The very good news is that most weeks, the Cowboys are in a good position. Weeks 4-9 have been really impressive. But according to this visual aid, we can confirm yet again that Sunday was horrendous.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
I know this is a fun time to run with your Prescott narratives, National Hot Take Guy, but honestly, all Sunday showed me is that the Cowboys have a warrior playing quarterback. The less time you have to throw, the shorter the throws have to be because nobody has a chance to run a route. This will not tell you took much beyond some colorful dots on a black screen.
The above chart is called, "Hey, Scott Linehan, did you notice every time you ran the ball out of 13 or 22 Personnel, you were getting 8 yards a carry?" Also, why did you only do it six times when they didn't show the ability to stop it? If Joseph Randle was here, he would point out how much meat was left on that bone.
OK, well, it is time to look at the tape. I just want to warn you in case you can't bear to deal with it: This will not feature much positivity.
We shall call the following portion, "Tyron Smith Appreciation."
First drive: This is a second-and-9 at the Falcons' 37. The Falcons are going to run a five-man pressure with a sixth man (No. 45, Deion Jones) as a trail blitzer who allows those in front of him to slant toward the right. Jones then fills the trail lane on the left, which is where Prescott would look to escape. It works very well for Atlanta as one of its go-to attacks. But as you can see, Green gives up the left tackle flank to Clayborn too easily, and this is the first of many sacks. Clayborn is wide, Green can't move his feet and carry his weight back there, his head drops, and it is over. Green almost tipped over. There is no way you can stop a train with that balance.
Third drive: third and 8. Fire zone blitz, where Clayborn is not even a rusher. He drops as the opposite defensive end on a fire zone with five rushers, becoming one of two zone defenders in the hook/curl area near the sticks. The Cowboys run this blitz a ton, too. Green gives up his corner to No. 97, Grady Jarrett, so Prescott steps up and looks to take off. Clayborn does not miss him in space and gets a poacher sack.
Fourth drive: This is a third-and-9. A basic four-man rush. This is the extremely rare moment when Martin gets beat on pass protection for a sack by Dontari Poe. Poe is a very impressive athlete and Martin was knocked off balance, then could not recover. I believe that was the first time he was physically beaten for a sack since 2015. Rare, indeed.
Fifth drive: Two-minute drill in first half. This is not a sack. This is your quarterback saving your left tackle from giving up another one. Clayborn is killing Green with one move. One. All day. The same under move where he gets his inside shoulder outside of your outside shoulder. You can see Green trying to cheat the snap because he just physically can't get to his spot in time. His head drops, he is off balance and has no strength at that point. When we talk about feet and quickness in draft season, this is what we are talking about. To be a tackle, you need a lot of attributes -- but if you cannot move your feet, you have no chance.
The next play: The Cowboys give Rod Smith the chip and it works. But La'el Collins loses on his side to Vic Beasley after Prescott finds nothing open, so he runs for his life again and actually gets 2 yards before taking another hit.
This is three plays later. Prescott can no longer breathe because he is so exhausted from running. Now Brooks Reed is charging at Green, and Green takes a holding penalty. Prescott puts a nice throw on Cole Beasley to put Dallas in a position to tie the game at 10-10 with a half-ending field goal, but they march it back because of the hold.
The half ends three plays later when Prescott is taken down again, because Green has to either hold Clayborn on the weird spin move or give up the sack. He pretty much does both, the ball gets away and the Falcons recover to end this drive.
"The coaches did him no favors. You can't hide a left tackle, but you can help him. In the third quarter, the Cowboys are still in the game. They take their first drive of that quarter right down the field with great power on the ground. Down just 17-7 with much of the second half to play, they marched all the way to the Falcons' 12-yard line after Alfred Morris had runs of 14 yards, 20 yards, and 11 yards. They have actually salvaged the situation and now have a first down in the red zone. Why then, Mr. Linehan, would you decide to hop back into shotgun on first down and ask Chaz Green to pass protect -- on an island -- against a guy who already has four sacks against him? It is first down and your offensive line and power personnel groupings had just mowed all the way down the field in a few short plays. And now, you want to take those tight ends off the field and get back into shotgun on first down? Predictably, the play ended in a sack and that drive was killed, too. In fact, when Mike Nugent even missed the chip-shot 38-yard field goal, the game effectively ended."
The same exact move from Clayborn.
Fourth quarter -- seventh drive. This is the one that made Troy Aikman lose his mind. So, they have help for Green here. His only job is not to get beat outside, because Cooper is there to help him inside. I don't want to say this is 7th-grade stuff here, but it is. You simply cannot let him get your outside shoulder -- no matter what.
He got beat to the outside. So frustrating. This is where they got the hook out for him.
So, this is drive No. 8 -- Byron Bell has a chance. And on fourth and 6, he takes the holding penalty and gives up a sack to Reed on the same play.
And finally, the play I think Jason Garrett should be happy didn't get his quarterback hurt. Again, back to yesterday:
"Even though the game was over in the fourth quarter (after a few more sacks), the staff that evidently had their brains suspended for the game are calling timeouts down 27-7 to try to get the ball back so they can call more plays in shotgun and get their star QB blindsided a few more times by Clayborn and friends, who have savaged the left tackle spot long after Chaz Green was gone and Byron Bell (their other idea) was being served up on a platter.
"They should have been running the ball or even taking a knee -- not calling timeouts to prolong the destruction -- but Jason Garrett is going to never stop being Jason Garrett. They never really helped out Chaz Green, nor did they modify their strategies to protect him from getting Dak killed, but instead wanted to get the ball back to rerun their same poor strategies. Madness."
Clayborn. Same move. The same exact move. You know why? He doesn't have more than one move.
The Cowboys realized just how good Tyron Smith is Sunday. They hadn't experienced a day like this in decades. Let's hope they go decades before it happens again.