It was a tough night all around for Cincinnati Bengals fans on Sunday. The team fell to 1-2 on the preseason and lost linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first three games of the season (after his appeal dropped the suspension from five games to three). With the NFL handing out a suspension to Burfict, the young linebackers the Bengals brought in will have to step up to fill the void.
Rookie linebacker Carl Lawson saw a lot of playing time early for the Bengals against the Redskins, where he faced off most of the night against six time Pro Bowl Tackle Trent Williams. Lawson had a decent night and even managed to sack Kirk Cousins late in the first quarter.
Lawson first made an impact on third-and-four where the Bengals place him on the line of scrimmage and show a heavy blitz up the middle and on the edge. As Cousins snaps the ball, the linebackers bail and the Bengals only rush four with Washington double teaming the defensive tackles. Lawson works from the bottom of the screen and uses his speed and leverage to beat Williams to the backside of the pocket, where Cousins moves back to avoid the pressure coming from his right side.
With Lawson taking the outside leverage and using his hands to prevent Williams from pushing him too far outside, it makes it so the guard can’t help Williams without running into the quarterback, which forces him to stay on Geno Atkins on the play, who was really just keeping the pocket together at the front. The play shows that off the edge, Lawson not only had a good training camp, but is able to put the skills we saw at Auburn into practice on Sundays against some of the best tackles in the NFL.
In the third quarter, Lawson moved back to the inside linebacker position. The linebackers shifted to the near side as the Redskins got set. Lawson read the play very well, and actually broke through the guard who was slanting across, but the running back cut back and Lawson missed the tackle in the backfield. Lawson did a good job of pressuring the back, and ended up turning him back inside, which limited the carry to two yards. But, the tackle in the backfield would have been a huge one for the defense and young Lawson.
Later on the same drive, Lawson moved back down to the edge on a third and five and ended up contributing to Jordan Willis stripping Colt McCoy for a Bengals recovery. Working on the near side, Lawson faced Ty Nsekhe who started six games for Washington last season. Lawson used a bull rush technique on this play and drove the tackle back toward McCoy since the guards doubled the tackles again. When McCoy moves back to avoid the tackle hitting him, Willis plowed into him and forced the ball to the ground.
Lawson adds speed and strength to a pass rush that needed work heading into the offseason, and played his best on the later passing downs when he had the ability to solely rush the quarterback. His bull rush looks strong, and his leverage and speed can complement Carlos Dunlap and Jordan Willis well while providing late down snaps in rotation. This could also keep Michael Johnson more fresh as he’ll be able to take more plays off.
Against Washington, Lawson also got valuable snaps at inside linebacker as the Bengals prepare to open the season without Burfict. The coaching staff looks to be testing Lawson in this role, and how well he works as a coverage linebacker, possibly to provide more depth, and save a roster spot. If Lawson keeps impressing, he’ll see playing time on defense early on in his rookie year.