The Falcons jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead on Thursday in Cleveland and scored 17 unanswered points to finish off the Browns, 24-13. But the contest wasn’t always in Atlanta’s control.
After opening the scoring on a nine-play, 71-yard drive in the first quarter, Atlanta allowed two strikes from a Robert Griffin-led Browns offense and looked up at a 13-7 deficit for the better part of the second quarter. While the Falcons’ success early was an energizing infusion of offense, the next two drives turned up zero points.
Cleveland shifted momentum toward the home team with two surgical drives and pinpoint passing from Griffin. Atlanta’s defense – particularly its secondary – was getting punished.
Matters meandered from bad to worse midway through the second quarter when a short, 16-yard Nick Rose punt (Matt Bosher had been injured earlier in the game) gave Cleveland great field position at the Browns’ 46. Silliness then ensued.
A gift from the football gods was squandered when Sean Weatherspoon grabbed RG3’s facemask while he was already on the ground after Cleveland’s center snapped the ball over his quarterback’s head. Instead of second-and-35 from the 21, the Browns were given a first down after the penalty at their own 37.
Not only were the Falcons behind by six points, but they were now hurting themselves with penalties and poor field position.
Adrian Clayborn came to the rescue.
On the first play after Weatherspoon’s facemask penalty, Clayborn (lined up on the right side of the defensive line) came unblocked toward Griffin behind the line of scrimmage. The play looked to be designed for Cleveland fullback Malcolm Johnson to slide over and protect RG3 with a block on Clayborn.
Johnson’s effort was minuscule and the result futile.
Clayborn easily evaded Johnson’s block and pulled RG3 down for a 7-yard sack. But the Falcons’ defensive lineman wasn’t done.
On the next play – second-and-17 from Cleveland’s 30 – Clayborn lined up on the left side of the defensive line and engaged with a blocker on an Isaiah Crowell run play. Crowell pushed to the right side before trying to pop out into the open.
Clayborn was able to free himself from the block and grab Crowell behind the line of scrimmage for a 1-yard loss.
With a ton going wrong for the Falcons’ defense through most of the first and early second quarters, and after poor field position and a penalty threatened to extend Cleveland’s six-point lead, Clayborn’s two plays helped turn momentum toward Atlanta.
Cleveland was forced to punt a play later and Atlanta finished the first half with a 15-play drive that netted a field goal. Then the Falcons held the Browns without a point in the second half and scored two touchdowns.
Here’s further proof that Clayborn’s two defensive plays – a sack and a tackle for loss back-to-back – were the turning point for the Falcons: Cleveland’s offensive effectiveness declined greatly after these two moments.
With eight first downs prior to Clayborn’s plays, the Browns only managed four for the rest of the game. Cleveland only gained 92 yards on offense after Clayborn’s tackle for loss with 7:53 to play in the second quarter, after churning 151 yards prior to that.
Clayborn didn’t single-handedly win the game for the Falcons, but his two defensive efforts absolutely turned the tide of momentum.