Cover 9@9: Clayborn emerged from dark injury-riddled past

Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn records the fifth sack of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott during the second half in a NFL football game on Sunday, November 12, 2017, in Atlanta. The Falcons beat the Cowboys 27-7. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m Wednesday that  you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons (5-4). The defending NFC champion Falcons are set to face the Seattle Seahawks (6-3) at 8:30 p.m. on Monday Night Football at CenturyLink Field.

1. CLAYBORN EMERGES FROM DARK PLACE: Falcons coach Dan Quinn was genuinely happy for defensive end Adrian Clayborn after he garnered his six-pack of sacks against the Cowboys.

You have to know a little bit about Clayborn’s back story and his NFL journey to appreciate why Quinn was so happy for Clayborn, the St. Louis native who starred at Iowa.

Georgia Tech fans know all about the energetic defensive end.

Clayborn nearly single-handedly destroyed the Ramblin’ Wreck in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 5. 2010. He was named the game’s MVP after the 24-14 win.

He went on to become an All-Big Ten and first-team All-American in 2010 and no one turned their heads when Tampa Bay selected him with the 20th pick overall in the 2011 NFL draft.

At Tampa Bay is where the injury troubles started for him and that helps explains what Quinn referred to as the “dark place” Clayborn was after he suffered a bicep injury in the playoffs last season against Seattle.

Clayborn and Michael Bennett were both with Tampa Bay in 2011. Bennett would go on to star with Quinn in Seattle. Clayborn played in all 16 games as a rookie and had 7.5 sacks.

In 2012, Clayborn suffered a knee injury and played in just three games.

He played in 16 games in 2013 and had 5.5 sacks.

Before the 2014 season, the Bucs announced they wouldn’t pick up Clayborn’s fifth-year option. They’d signed former Georgia Tech standout Michael Johnson in free agency and move Clayborn to left defensive end.

Clayborn played one game before suffering another season-ending biceps injury and was placed on injured reserve.

He’d played four seasons, but two were spent on injured reserved. He wasn’t mad at the Bucs for cutting him. He knew staying healthy is part of the NFL game.

He signed a one-year make good contract with the Falcons in 2015. He was re-signed to a two-year, $9 million incentive-laden deal in 2016. Another $5 million is available through incentives, one which was triggered by Clayborn reaching eight sacks.

Quinn said he’s never had a player get six sacks in one game as Clayborn did against the Cowboys Sunday.

“I said, it will be a game, you know, a long time from now that he’ll get to look back and say, ‘One day, there was a time when I put the guy down six times,’ ” Quinn said. “It was just a night where everything really connected for him.”

Quinn reflected on the game and how happy he was for Clayborn on his ride home from the 27-7 victory.

“(When) I was driving home and thinking about him where last year later in the year, but was in a really dark time, (he) got injured,” Quinn said.

The coach stopped short of saying that Clayborn, 29, may have considered that his career was over.

“He had some injuries in the past and where does that stand when a team was continuing to play without him,” Quinn said. “That hurt. So it was during those times of rehab that you put the work in for moments like that, to say it was worth all the extra things that I did to put myself in a position to do that.”

Clayborn put his bicep back together and came back determined to help the Falcons maintain their newfound status as title contenders.

“He’s a very consistent player, one of our most consistent I’d say,” Quinn said.

The witty Clayborn had a good time holding court after the game. He was asked about what moves were working for him and said, “I only have one move and it works.”

Surely, he had an extra bowl of Wheaties on Sunday morning.

“Same thing I always eat,” Clayborn said.

Well, why didn’t they get that poor fella some help.

“They chipped me some and it hurt,” Clayborn said.

The Falcons know about Clayborn’s quiet demeanor and quick wit.

“Behind the scenes he has a big role here in terms of communication and making sure things go right,” Quinn said. “For him, a guy who’s so quiet and so tough, to have that kind of performance, the team was really pumped for him.”

2. HAWK TIME: The Seahawks have been missing their hard-charging rushing attack this season as they’ve used five different running backs. They signed Mike Davis, the former South Carolina standout from Stephenson High, to the roster on Tuesday. The former San Francisco draft pick was on the practice squad.

Rookie running back Chris Carson, the former Parkview High standout, may return soon. He rushed for 208 yards on 49 carries before being injured.

Carson, who opened the season as the starter, is on injured reserved. He is a candidate to return after eight weeks.

“We really felt a direction, Chris really took us off in a direction, we really thought we had something special going there, which I think we saw,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on his radio show. “He’s coming back too. He has a chance to make it back. There’s a chance, yeah. He is doing remarkably well in his rehab.”

The Seahawks have also used Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise and J.D. McKissic at running back. The speedy McKissic was one of the Falcons’ last cuts in 2016. Prosise was placed on injured reserve.

“So (running back) has been in flux, it hasn’t been steady, and it’s been like that for more than this season,” Carroll said.

3. GEORGIA DOME: The Georgia Dome will be imploded next Monday. Please share your favorite Dome memories and your feelings about its implosion for possible use in story. Email to: ttucker@ajc.com

4. PRO BOWL VOTING IS OPEN:  The fan voting for the 2018 Pro Bowl is open. For voting visit:  www.nfl.com/probowlvoterules.

5. PLAYOFF PICTURE: The Falcons have a 32.8 percent chance of making the playoffs and need to win six of seven games to virtually clinch a playoff berth, according to www.makeNFLplayoffs.com, which calculates the chances each NFL team will make the playoffs. 
This is the 10th year the website has provided statistics on each team’s chance of making the NFL playoffs. The information is updated after each game.

6. RYAN CLIMBING UP THE CHARTS: (This item is from our Chris Vivlamore) Matt Ryan became the fastest quarterback in NFL history to surpass 40,000 career passing yards during Sunday’s victory. The Falcons quarterback is currently No. 19 on the league’s all-time list with 40,073 yards.

He is still climbing.

Ryan is likely to pass some big names before the end of the season – including the legendary Johnny Unitas as soon as Monday’s game. He needs just 167 passing yards to move to No. 18.

Ryan has thrown for 2,372 yards in nine games this season. He set his career best last season with 4,944 yards. If Ryan nears that total this season, he would move into No. 16 on the list.

Here is the top 20 on the NFL’s all-time career passing yards list:

1. Peyton Manning, 71,940 yards

2. Brett Favre, 71,838 yards

3. Drew Brees, 68,509 yards*

4. Tom Brady, 64,389 yards*

5. Dan Marino, 61, 361 yards

6. John Elway, 51,475 yards

7. Eli Manning, 50,307 yards*

8. Warren Moon, 49,325 yards

9. Ben Roethlisberger, 49,112 yards*

10. Philip Rivers, 48,096 yards*

11. Fran Tarkenton, 47,003 yards

12. Carson Palmer, 46, 247 yards*

13. Vinny Testaverde, 46,233 yards

14. Drew Bledsoe, 44,611 yards

15. Dan Fouts, 43,040 yards

16. Kerry Collins, 40,922 yards

17. Joe Montana, 40,551 yards

18. Johnny Unitas, 40,239 yards

19. Matt Ryan, 40,073 yards*

20. Aaron Rodgers, 38,212 yards*

* – active

7. ALLEN UP FOR ROONEY AWARD: Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen has been nominated for the NFL’s Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, according to the Associated Press.

Also, Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett, who played at North Clayton High and Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh defensive end Cameron Heyward, who played at Whitefield Academy and Peachtree Ridge High, were nominated.

The award, now in its fourth year, honors the founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The award is presented to an NFL player who best demonstrates the qualities of on-field sportsmanship, including fair play, respect for the game and opponents, and integrity in competition.

One player from each team is nominated by current NFL players. A panel of former players selects eight finalists, four from each conference. That panel includes Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, Warrick Dunn, Karl Mecklenburg and Leonard Wheeler.

Those eight finalists will be listed on the Pro Bowl ballot when players vote on Dec. 15. As for the Pro Bowl, a team can’t vote for its own player.

The award will be presented on Feb. 3, the night before the Super Bowl, at NFL Honors, when The Associated Press hands out its individual league awards. The recipient will receive a $25,000 donation to the charity of his choice.

Past winners have been Larry Fitzgerald, Charles Woodson and Frank Gore.

The nominees:

Arizona Cardinals, CB, Patrick Peterson

Atlanta Falcons, S, Ricardo Allen

Baltimore Ravens, QB, Joe Flacco

Buffalo Bills, LB, Lorenzo Alexander

Carolina Panthers, LB, Luke Kuechly

Chicago Bears, RB, Benny Cunningham

Cincinnati Bengals, DE, Carlos Dunlap

Cleveland Browns, T, Joe Thomas

Dallas Cowboys, C, Travis Frederick

Denver Broncos, LB, Von Miller

Detroit Lions, DT, Haloti Ngata

Green Bay Packers, S, Morgan Burnett

Houston Texans, P, Shane Lechler

Indianapolis Colts, WR, T.Y. Hilton

Jacksonville Jaguars, LB, Paul Posluszny

Kansas City Chiefs, QB, Alex Smith

Los Angeles Chargers, TE, Antonio Gates

Los Angeles Rams, G, Rodger Saffold

Miami Dolphins, G, Jermon Bushrod

Minnesota Vikings, DE, Brian Robison

New England Patriots, WR, Matthew Slater

New Orleans Saints, QB, Drew Brees

New York Giants, T, Justin Pugh

New York Jets, QB, Josh McCown

Oakland Raiders, QB. Derek Carr

Philadelphia Eagles, TE, Brent Celek

Pittsburgh Steelers, DE, Cameron Heyward

San Francisco 49ers, T, Joe Staley

Seattle Seahawks, DE, Cliff Avril

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, DT, Gerald McCoy

Tennessee Titans, QB, Marcus Mariota

Washington Redskins, TE, Vernon Davis

8. HILL TO BENGALS: The Falcons, who are thin at running back, lost rookie Brian Hill to the Cincinnati Bengals on Tuesday.

Hill, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Wyoming, was signed off the practice squad.

Falcons starting running back Devonta Freeman is in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward carried the load for the Falcons against Dallas Cowboys after Freeman left early in the game.

Hill struggled in the exhibition season for the Falcons, but was developing well in practice, according to head coach Dan Quinn.

“We feel he’s made progress over the last couple weeks,” Quinn said on Monday when asked about Hill. “As his (developmental) work has taken place, I felt maybe over the last month, you’ve seen that come through. He’s been one of the black jersey award (best teammate in practice) winners for us during that time. We’re encouraged by his development so far.”

Hill, who was slowed with an ankle injury in the exhibition season, made the opening day roster. He played in the fourth regular-season game, against the Buffalo Bills, on special teams. He was waived on Oct. 14. He was signed to practice squad since Oct. 17.

9. DEPTH CHART: The Falcons released their official depth chart for the Seattle game on Tuesday.

The Falcons waived rookie linebacker Jermaine Grace, who made the team as an undrafted free agent, on Tuesday.

The Falcons also waived kicker Mike Meyer from the practice squad and re-signed quarterback Garrett Grayson.

Veteran Sean Weatherspoon, who made his 2017 debut against Dallas, is listed second behind Deion Jones at middle linebacker. Weatherspoon played four snaps against Dallas and seven on special teams.

“He was one in our practice preparation (for Dallas), I thought Spoon did an excellent job of helping set kind of the week off,” Quinn said. “I had said last week our Wednesday practice was loud, and it wasn’t just from the voices.

“So, his loud was the way he spoke with his pads, and I thought that was an important part of the week and our preparation. But he does bring energy to our team, and we’re excited to have him back in.”

Here’s the depth chart:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 14 Justin Hardy, 19 Andre Roberts

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 Ty Sambrailo

LG 67 Andy Levitre, 64 Sean Harlow

C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland

RG 71 Wes Schweitzer, 63 Ben Garland

RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 68 Austin Pasztor

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Levine Toilolo, 85 Eric Saubert

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Taylor Gabriel, 17 Marvin Hall, 15 Nick Williams

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 28 Terron Ward

FB 40 Derrick Coleman

DEFENSE

DE 50 Brooks Reed, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 98 Takk McKinley

DT 92 Dontari Poe, 79 Ahtyba Rubin

DT 97 Grady Jarrett

DE 91 Courtney Upshaw, 90 Derrick Shelby

LB 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 53 LaRoy Reynolds

LB 45 Deion Jones, 56 Sean Weatherspoon

LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 42 Duke Riley, 36 Kemal Ishmael

CB 23 Robert Alford, 29 C.J. Goodwin, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole

S 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee

S 22 Keanu Neal, 20 Sharrod Neasman

SPECIALISTS 

K 3 Matt Bryant

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 19 Andre Roberts, 14 Justin Hardy

PR 19 Andre Roberts, 18 Taylor Gabriel

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher

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