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The Cowboys’ Biggest Problem Is Their Offensive Line

The team let Dak Prescott take eight sacks on Sunday, and the offense ground to a halt as a result

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Imagine having a day at work so good you trigger your year-end bonus halfway through the year.

That’s what Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn did when he sacked Dak Prescott six times on Sunday, finishing one shy of the single-game record and becoming just the fourth player in NFL history to record that many in a day. To put that in context, Clayborn hadn’t had six sacks in a season since his rookie year in 2011. Coming into Sunday, only 17 players had six or more sacks total this season. Clayborn had enough sacks to make an additional $750,000 during the game by reaching eight sacks for the season. He should share some of that money with the man he tormented all day, Cowboys backup left tackle Chaz Green, partially because it’s only fair and partially because Green might go into hiding after Clayborn dunked him into another dimension.

In theory, the Cowboys have perhaps the best offensive line in football, and they entered Sunday ranked fourth in run blocking and fifth in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. In practice, two-time All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, who strained his groin last week against the Chiefs, was replaced by Green, a 25-year-old former third-round pick. Green proceeded to spend Sunday serving as the NFL version of a matador, single-handedly turning Dallas’s greatest strength—blocking—into a comical weakness as the Falcons manhandled the Cowboys, 27-7.

Take this play, where Clayborn lines up so far from the next defensive lineman that he might as well be in another time zone. Green allows Clayborn to get outside of him, and the seventh-year veteran runs around him like a Madden glitch.

When Clayborn wasn’t running around Green, he was running through him.

Fox broadcaster Troy Aikman said it was “about as bad as I’ve seen anyone get beat in all of my years of watching football.”

Green, mercifully, was replaced by third-string tackle Byron Bell late in the game. But Bell couldn’t stop the bleeding, either.

The result was an anemic performance from the Cowboys’ offense, which mustered just 233 yards. Dak Prescott completed 20 of 30 passes for 176 yards, and lost 50 yards on eight sacks. With the Cowboys falling to 5-4 and three games out of the lead in the NFC East, they’ll likely have to fight in a crowded wild-card field just to return to the playoffs after earning a first-round bye last season.

The lack of depth behind Smith isn’t a good omen for that wild-card race. Sunday was the worst pass-blocking performance in recent memory for the Cowboys, and it wasn’t even against an elite pass rusher, which Dallas will see a lot of in the near future. Next week, the Cowboys play the Eagles and the terrifying trio of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Vinny Curry, who are paid more than $175 million combined to wreak havoc in the backfield. Then they take on San Diego, who may have the best edge-rushing combination in the league with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who have a combined 18 sacks and could double that total if Dallas can’t find a way to plug the holes on its line. If Smith isn’t healthy enough to return soon, you’re going to see the best sack artists in the world try to pad their stats for their next contract negotiations.

With Smith, the Cowboys still have the best offensive line in football—the non-Clayborn Falcons finished with two sacks on three quarterback hits. Without him, Dak Prescott will take shots like a fish in a barrel, MythBusters style.