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Bengals Weekly Lineman: Carl Lawson duels a familiar foe; Andrew Billings called in

Two SEC rivals go head-to-head for the first time since their college days, and looking at how Andrew Billings did playing 60% of the snaps on defense in relief of a Pat Sims injury.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

In two last two Iron Bowl games, Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson faced off against Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson, and didn’t get a sack in either contest. Both players were leaders of their respective units on their college squads and are remembered fondly at each rival school now that they’re becoming quality NFL players.

When these players faced off in those games, the matchup was typically in Robinson’s favor because of the size advantage he possessed over Lawson. Robinson has 35 12 inch arms and 10 12 inch hands and he uses them aggressively. He’s without a doubt a puncher when it comes to pass protection. It’s largely why I had him ranked as the best offensive tackle in this year’s draft class. On Sunday, these two faced off a little over a dozen times, let’s see how it went down.

One arm is longer than two. Jacksonville’s offensive line enters phase one of pass protection in beautiful cohesion, footwork aligned with a subtle kick-outs with their “catch” leg (outside leg) that establishes wide bases. Robinson is in the ideal pass protection stance with that wide base, ideal lean at the knees and hips, and times his punch, leaving Lawson at his mercy here. Lawson attempts to leverage Robinson inside so he can work around him, but Robinson ain’t having it.

On Lawson’s best snap of the day, he launches out of his stance straight forward to get maximum depth against Robinson, and it works. Right when Lawson is primed to bend around the edge, Robinson doesn’t have him effectively mirrored to quarterback Blake Bortles, Lawson has his edge. He dips at the shoulders and then subsequently the hips at the perfect time to remove any place for Robinson to get his hands on him. Bortles gets the ball out right before he’s walloped, but this is a win for Lawson against Robinson.

The battle is on and Robinson responds quickly. Lawson tests out running the arc and Robinson does a much better job beating him to the edge coming out of his stance. His kick-slide is controlled but much quicker. He gets Lawson right in the chest and Lawson’s toast for the play.

Catch it next time Shawn Williams, would ya?

Lawson has more ground to set up a move against Robinson coming out of the Wide 9-technique spot here. Normally, pass rushers in this alignment will use the extra space to build up speed and convert it to power in the form of a bull rush, or set up the outside rush and come back inside. Lawson just tries to swipe away Robinson’s punch and is washed out of the play.

Admittedly, I’ve not seen a lot of Robinson’s tape this year in Jacksonville, but I did notice how he punched with his outside arm almost exclusively this game. Lawson’s best move is winning around the edge, and if that’s what you’re protecting against, you can get away with it. Against someone who likes to work back inside, that will get you eaten alive.

Watch this play and go back to the first play of this article. Lawson does a much better job with his hands. Early hands win, and in comparison, he gets extension much earlier and in more timely fashion this time, which gives him an outside lane to turn the corner, forcing Bortles to just throw it in the dirt.

If you look carefully, you can see Robinson pull back his initial punch. Lawson, again, takes a wide angle and Robinson half expected him to make a more direct rush. As a result, Robinson has to reset his hands to get an actual punch off, and Lawson gets to work on a hump move. He extends that inside arm into Robinson’s chest at the top of the rush and works back inside. Bortles sees Chris Smith’s pressure in front of him and steps up in the pocket, meanwhile Lawson’s helmet is ripped off by Robinson’s last ditch effort to stop him. Lawson is a split second too slow and Bortles gets the ball out.

Lawson played most of his snaps in the first half as most of the Jaguars’s third downs came in that timespan, and had a few more notable reps against Robinson, but not much happened. In the end, Robinson kept Bortles clean from Lawson for basically the entire game, but the two former SEC rivals had themselves a good ‘ole back and forth shootout on the left edge.

Transitioning inside, starting nose tackle Pat Sims exited the game early in the first-quarter with a calf injury. For the first time all season and in his career, Andrew Billings played a significant portion of a game. And didn’t take long to make an impact:

Sometimes you can just tell the defense correctly identified the play-call before the snap. The entire defensive line slants towards the right Chris Smith meets running back T.J. Yeldon immediately after the mesh point. But it was Billings who had more work to do. At the snap he quickly began plugging the gap, and stayed low throughout the contact and essentially met Smith in the backfield.

The foundation of this Jaguars offense is predicated off gap-scheme blocking and runs. This concept is named duo, because of the two deuce blocks on the defensive tackles. The primary read for the running back is the gap between the two deuce blocks. Billings, along with Geno Atkins, does a tremendous job closing that gap and forcing Yeldon to back to the backside, where the read defender, Smith meets him and limits him to a three-yard gain.

On this draw play up the middle, Billings does well working around the twist executed by Ryan Glasgow and reading the play all the way. But he has to finish. He lowers his shoulders and leaves himself vulnerable to Yeldon dropping his hips and evading out of his grasp. Guarantee you he would like that one back.

Staying consistent, the Jaguars attempt to attack the A gap with duo, and Billings forces another bounce out by the running back. He was flagged for the rare and elusive defensive holding penalty, and looking at the center at the end of the play... yeah we’ll give the refs that one. Billings’s brute force is so easily seen, but he has to learn to control and use his hands more effectively. He’ll get there.

After halftime was when the Jaguars got the bulk of their biggest runs of the game, this being one of them. Billings completely drops his hands at the point of attack and is driven off the line for a good three or four yards, and is completely taken out of his gap.

Later, Billings establishes much better control flowing with the play and working off the down block. You’d still want to see him disengage a little bit earlier and cross the center’s face a little earlier to completely close the gap, but this is still something you can work with it.

At the very end of the game, Billings was lined up at 0-tech as the Jaguars tried to punch in a touchdown to hammer the nail in the proverbial coffin, and Billings looked like he did at Baylor a knee surgery ago:

While it was rather unfortunate how he got on the field, this was a big game for Billings. His career high in snaps prior to this was 13 in Weeks 1 and 7, he played 48 against Jacksonville. That’s a considerable jump. Since he was the Big 12 defensive player of the year, he’s missed an entire year of football, and gained about 20 pounds. Still at just 21 years old, Billings is growing as a player, and a game like this. The Bengals lost, but Billings can look back on this game as a crucial step forward to becoming the player we know he can be.