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Bengals Weekly Lineman: Carl Lawson can only carry the pass rush so far

Is it a contract year aberration, or is Lawson the lone hope for the defensive line going forward?

NFL: SEP 27 Bengals at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Football mirrors life in the sense that both are filled with coincidental oddities. Perhaps the most bizarre example for the Cincinnati Bengals is how Carl Lawson always seems to turn it on in Week 3 of a given season.

In his four years with the Bengals, Lawson has played in three Week 3 games. All three of them have been exemplary from a pass-rushing standpoint. During his rookie season back in 2017, Lawson racked up 2.5 sacks and 10 total pressures against the Green Bay Packers’ in their Week 3 matchup. Exactly one year later, Lawson went to work against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3 of the 2018 season and was Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest graded edge defender from the week out of over 100 qualifying players.

As it happens, Lawson was featured in The Weekly Lineman for both performances. You can reminisce about those games here and here after you’ve made it to the bottom of this page.

Lawson was injured for Week 3 of 2019, so he had some catching up to do on Sunday along with maintaining this strange reputation. He accomplished just that against the Philadelphia Eagles, so it’d be criminal if we didn’t honor tradition here.

PFF credited Lawson with four total pressures and two sacks on 34 pass-rushing snaps. He only took one snap as the left edge defender, so he faced off against legendary left tackle Jason Peters for essentially his entire day. For being 38 years old, Peters can still play at a moderately high level. His 72.5 pass-blocking grade from this game was earned due to him being pretty consistent for 58 snaps in pass protection, however, that includes at least 24 clean reps against someone who wasn’t Lawson. Peters’ grade against just Lawson would presumably be much lower since he was the one who allowed all four of his pressures and both of his sacks.

At least three of the four plays we’ll look at were clear-as-day pressures, and all of them have their own story to tell despite three of them looking very similar.

Four pressures on 34 opportunities isn’t too shabby, but Lawson’s 66.2 pass-rushing grade proves that there weren’t very many wins from him outside of the clear and obvious examples. Peters was able to suppress him for most of the game, and quarterback Carson Wentz didn’t hold the ball too long for very many of his drop backs.

Here’s the thing: that 66.2 was the highest pass-rushing grade a Bengals defender received this week. It’s also the fourth-highest individual grade a Bengals defender has been given this year for rushing the passer, and Lawson holds the highest with a 67.2 from Week 1.

In a nutshell, the Bengals’ pass rush has stunk through three weeks. I could’ve just posted their 30th-ranked 33% pass rush win rate to get the point across quicker. For what it’s worth, their overall PFF pass-rushing grade of 51.3 ranks dead last in the league. Geno Atkins is valuable, but not THAT valuable, you know? They can’t put it all on his absence.

As a player that wins with leverage more than speed or bend, Lawson is certainly building some leverage against the Bengals’ front office. Lawson’s playing on the last year of his rookie contract, so he’s setting himself up to earn a lot more than what he’s making right now. But there were legitimate reasons as to why the Bengals didn’t even think about extending him this offseason.

As you can tell in the breakdown, Lawson’s pass-rushing arsenal is still fairly limited. When he can’t win with that long arm, he doesn’t have much else to work with. His bull rushes are largely ineffective and he has little-to-no flexibility in his ankles to bend around the edge. On top of that, his productive days are usually met with injury later on. A torn ACL in 2018 and a hamstring injury in 2019 makes his promising 2017 season feel all the more distant.

When taking all of that into account...it kinda makes his career production even more impressive? From day one, he showed an aptitude for timing and hand usage as a pass-rusher, and has just made his specific skillset work when he’s been healthy.

He looks healthy right now, and it’s a good thing he does because he’s literally all they got at the moment. Carlos Dunlap has been virtually non-existent and most of Sam Hubbard’s pressures can be classified as clean-up work/hustle plays rather than clean wins.

You should pay for the latter, not the former. While there’s still room for the 25-year old Lawson to improve, he’s looking like the guy the Bengals need to worry about writing a check for if the status quo remains unchanged.