For most of the time between January and April, aka NFL Draft time, I truly believed edge rusher was a position the Bengals needed to try and target early in the draft. Even after signing free agent Kerry Wynn from the Giants, the position group had a few major unanswered questions entering 2019.
The biggest one being: what if Carl Lawson doesn’t immediately return to form?
Since bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2017, Lawson has been a workhorse for the Bengals’ pass rush. He’s accounted for a hefty portion of the unit’s pressures and sacks in relation to how minimal he’s played compared to others along the defensive line.
Lawson produces whenever he’s on the field, and that production was sorely missed last season when he tore his ACL in Week 8 against the Buccaneers; so much that you could easily make the argument his absence was equally impactful as A.J. Green’s on offense. That’s how pedestrian the pass rush was last year when he was out.
To a mild shock, the Bengals did not draft an edge rusher. Even with the addition of Wynn, who looks to be a solid contributor this season, the pass rush in Cincinnati is mainly relying on the same faces from last year. Sam Hubbard and Jordan Willis are playing like they’re improved from a year ago, but if those two are your second and third-best edge rushers, the unit doesn’t have much to offer. This is 2019: every team has multiple quality edge rushers, serviceable doesn’t cut it anymore.
Lawson is quality. No, he’s high quality. They needed him to come back 100% as quick as possible. The good news is, he did.
Head coach Zac Taylor decided that Week 3 of the preseason was when Lawson was to return to the field after not playing football for 10 months. He played 11 snaps, seven as a pass rusher, and looked better than ever.
First live action pass-rushing rep in 299 days and he’s the only one that penetrates through the Giants’ four-man slide protection to the strong-side of the formation. As soon as he sees left tackle Nate Solder enter his 45-degree set while left guard Will Hernandez slides to his right, Lawson adjusts his path towards the opening C-gap.
Lawson has always been about unleashing power moves to the inside, and he’s able to fire off this rip move before the tackle can re-adjust and land a clean punch. Quarterback Daniel Jones gets the ball out quickly off of his designed one-read progression, but Lawson covers a lot of ground quickly through contact here.
A 1.60 10-yard split for a 261-pound edge rusher is very impressive. That’s what Lawson recored at that size at the 2017 scouting combine. It was the third-best 10-yard split among defensive lineman that year, and you can see that translate in this rep.
By timing the snap perfectly from the wide-9 spot, he forces Solder to get 90-degrees in his vertical set almost instantly. It takes Lawson just three strides from his get-off point to reach the tackle, and the quickly generated force is unloaded violently on the ill-prepared tackle, who is rushed to his spot and can’t absorb Lawson properly as a result. He ends up nearly falling into his quarterback.
Hernandez actually did get thrown into the quarterback, thanks to none other than Geno Atkins, who also made his 2019 debut in this game. Atkins also forced a holding penalty from Hernandez on this play too.
Would it be a Lawson film review without us appreciating the hump move?
You can see the fear in Solder’s hurried kick slides. It’s tough to keep your hands and feet calm and in sync and when your lower half is rushed like that. This makes Lawson’s job of landing that inside arm on the tackle’s right armpit that much easier. The lower leg drive while turning the corner is nothing we haven’t seen before.
Not to chastise the guy out of nowhere, but this kind of rep is very common for Bengals’ right tackle Bobby Hart. He gets out into his set quickly, but not efficiently. As a result, his hands aren’t always ready to protect his frame and he can be susceptible to power moves like this. This is why you want natural athletes as pass protectors; so they can establish “half-man” in a cool and collected fashion and can fire their punches effectively.
This rep from Solder is night and day better than the one that last one. Lawson can’t open Solder’s hips or soften his inside shoulder with the hump, and when he attempts to do it again, he loses almost all of his momentum and force to do it properly. This is where you’d want Lawson to quickly transition to an outside move, but he’s just not the athlete to pull that out of his bag instantly.
Jones has enough time and space to launch a deep ball to wide receiver Brittan Golden, putting the Giants in scoring position. Lawson would immediately make up for this lost rep.
With strong safety Shawn Williams responsible for the edge, Lawson is free to explode through the C-gap upon reading Solder drive blocking towards the middle of the formation. The tight end responsible for reach blocking Lawson, Scott Simonson, has no chance to match that explosion and Lawson disrupts the point of attack beautifully.
Though he’s visibly frustrated he didn’t make the tackle himself, Lawson’s work here allowed nose tackle Andrew Billings time to get off his block to corral running back Rod Smith. Williams also is able to crash down on the tackle in time after having to maintain discipline off the zone read.
The very next play, Lawson officially re-introduces himself.
I honestly can’t classify what move Lawson unleashes here. He essentially fakes a club to the inside and chops up instead of down with his right hand. This gets Solder over-set to the outside and softens the edge because his outside hand kept him clean. From there, it’s flatten and close, which he does with ease, and meets Hubbard at Jones for the strip-sack.
Lawson nearly sacked Jones on the next play, but the rookie lobbed a prayer down the left sideline and got the Giants down the one-yard line. Lawson would play one more snap after that and he was shut down for the remainder of the game, and for good reason.
We saw what we needed to see. Lawson is back, and you’d best not miss what he’s got in store for 2019.