SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Morris Claiborne jogged off the playing field and into a literal dog pile of hugs and congratulations.
Sure, that's fairly commonplace, given the setting. With Dallas holding a 21-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, Claiborne jumped up and intercepted a deep ball from Blaine Gabbert at his own seven-yard line.
After a 27-yard return, he disappeared into a swarm of teammates whose excitement went above and beyond the norm.
"Everybody loves Mo, and everybody sees the work that he's put in," said Sean Lee. "Especially when a guy gets injured and he battles back from these injuries."
It was the highlight of a resurgent season for Claiborne, who has risen from a seemingly-endless list of injuries and disappointments to become the Cowboys' best defender to this point in the season. Not only did it kill a San Francisco drive, but it registered as Claiborne's first interception since his game-clincher against the then-St. Louis Rams back in September 2014.
"I remember walking around telling the training staff, 'I'm going to get you one,'" Claiborne said. "I even told our linebackers coach, 'Hey, I'm going to get you one.' It just so happened that I came back over with one."
Speaking of game-clinchers, Claiborne's interception might not have been the best play he made on Sunday.
After a Dan Bailey field goal extended the Cowboys' lead to 24-17, the 49ers drove the ensuing kickoff to the Dallas 35-yard line with 1:56 to play in the game. Facing a 4th-and-6, Gabbert threw short to his right, finding Torrey Smith – who Claiborne promptly smacked out of bounds after a gain of just four.
Defensive backs are supposed to get interceptions, but the tackle was something Claiborne was plenty proud of.
"I'm happy with both of them," he said. "The fourth down tackle is what closed it out. I'm thankful."
That's been a hallmark of Claiborne's 2016 season that hasn't always been seen before. When he's not breaking up passes or gunning for interceptions, he's laying the wood. The critical tackle on Smith might be the highlight, but Claiborne already has a solid 24 tackles on the season – something he hasn't always shown in the past.
"Like I said, from shoulder injuries and stuff like that, you get kind of hesitant to go in and throw your head into tackles and stuff like that," he said. "But I'm feeling good. My shoulders are good, and my body is good as a whole. I'm just trying to give it all I got – whatever it takes."
When he's doing that, Claiborne looks much more like the player the Cowboys drafted No. 6 overall four years ago than the guy who hasn't been able to stay on the field for much of his career. Like the rest of the Dallas defense, he's playing far beyond the preseason expectation – and that can only mean good things going forward.
"Mo's overcome a lot throughout his career. He's playing the best football of his career," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "I think you saw that in the early part of the season. You saw that throughout the game."