September is winding down and the NFL season is still very young. We’re starting to pick up on things through three weeks, but we really don’t know a whole lot about what the rest of the season has in store for us. But we do (or should) know a couple things.
For starters, Carl Lawson is good at football.
First, he was good in high school. In his junior and senior year combined he recorded 42 sacks. He became the top defensive end in the 2013 recruiting class. Then he was good in college, where despite missing all of his sophomore year and half of his junior year due to knee and hip injuries, he became an All-American in his senior year when he racked up nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. Lawson was a top recruit and a standout performer at Auburn not because he was bigger than everyone, he’s only 6’1” and has a smaller than average arm length of 31 1⁄2 inches arms. His athleticism is great in some areas, in regards to his speed and quickness, but in terms of explosion and bend, he’s rather lackluster. He was never the perfect prospect because of these slight deficiencies, but most 22-year-old edge rushers simply can’t rush the passer like Lawson because he does it like someone much older.
I never got to watch Reggie White play football, but anyone who really knows who he was knew what his favorite pass rushing move was: the hump move. In theory, it’s effective by selling the outside rush, therefore getting the tackle to open his hips ever so slightly, and using that with a combination of a long arm upper cut under his pads to clear yourself a lane to the quarterback. Lawson did this twice to near perfection against the team White played for and won a super bowl with:
Backup offensive tackle Kyle Murphy is a young player himself at just 23-years-old, and the second year player was doing fine against Lawson up until Lawson’s first sack of the day, midway through the second quarter. You can see the process Lawson goes through well in slow motion. He sells the speed rush outside and gets Murphy to commit to closing him off the edge. Lawson uses all 31 1⁄2 inches of his inside arm to land a strike right near Murphy’s inside shoulder, which is helped out by Murphy’s missed punch with his inside arm. At this point, Murphy’s backside is facing upfield, and Lawson is under his pad level. Game over.
Same general principles here. The landing point of Lawson’s hump is so crucial because it prohibits Murphy from utilizing his length to keep Lawson at bay. Going in with a plan and timing your moves are the differences between washed reps and tangible production.
His third full sack was called back because of a late flag for 12 men on the field, but it’s still quality film:
Ultimately it’s Lawson’s shorter stature that gave Murphy fits for two quarters. All three instances he’s lifted off his feet when Lawson gets that inside arm extended and under his pad level. This specific rep, Lawson used a wider angle to generate more force by converting speed to power to explode through Murphy even quicker. Lawson knows what’s he doing, if he gets a one-on-one, he may not have the athletic advantage all the time (and he won’t) but he’s years ahead of edge rushers his age mechanically. And that can help him win like this for years to come. He may not win so much this week going up against the best left tackle in the game in Joe Thomas, but not many do anyways.
Going back to things we should know, the running game is more about numbers than you may think. I charted all 28 of the Bengals’ designed running plays, what concept the offense used with which back, which personnel, which gap they attacked, and the result of the play. Something that I didn’t initially record was whether the box was in their favor or not.
Of the 28 runs, 18 of them saw gains of three yards or less. And of those 18, 10 of them were when the Packers gave the Bengals a minus box. A minus box for the offense means there’s more box defenders for the defense than there are box blockers for the offense. You do the math; is it easier to run behind six blockers against six defenders, or against seven defenders? Seven against seven or seven against eight? Your local pee-wee football quarterback could tell you.
Even when they ran toward a run numbers advantage, they didn’t have the personnel to win straight up like this:
How many times did the Bengals have a box disadvantage on their five longest runs of the game? Once. And it was this run:
The Bengals have an offensive line problem; we all know this. Like for any weakness, your best option is to scheme around it as best you can. This means spreading the defense out into lighter boxes and giving your guys up front an easier job to pave open lanes instead of crowding everyone into more defenders than they can handle. Teams like the Raiders, Titans, Cowboys and Steelers may be able to get away with running against heavy boxes because they almost always have personnel advantage up front. But even they will have struggles from time to time against minus boxes because of the sheer logic of it. More is better, it’s that simple sometimes.