Examining whether Carl Lawson is truly a mismatch for Mekhi Becton
One of the biggest headlines of New York Jets training camp thus far has been the matchup between star edge rusher Carl Lawson and promising left tackle Mekhi Becton. Lawson has had Becton’s number, dominating him with consistency throughout the early goings of camp.
Carl Lawson is welcoming Zach Wilson to practice with a ton of pressure. He’s already sacked him once and nearly got to him a second time, forcing a bad throw. Lawson winning the battle with Becton frequently these past two days. #jets
— Andy Vasquez (@andy_vasquez) July 30, 2021
Many have pointed out that Lawson seems to be a disadvantageous matchup for Becton. Lawson stands at 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds and is an explosive athlete with tremendous get-off. It is likely difficult for the 6-foot-7, 367-pound Becton to both match Lawson’s quickness and get low enough to the ground to put his hands on him.
One would think that Lawson and other rushers like him should naturally have a good chance of getting underneath Becton and dipping the corner. Considering this mismatch and just how scary good that Lawson is, it does not seem all that surprising that he is obliterating the young Becton.
I decided to put this theory to the test. Does Becton actually struggle against rushers like Lawson?
To figure that out, I looked back at Becton’s 2020 season and analyzed how his pass-protection performance correlated with the measurables of the players he matched up against.
Who does Becton struggle against?
I collected data from the opponent’s primary right-side edge defender (the player who would most frequently line up against Becton) in each of the 12 games where Becton played a significant number of snaps and did not leave early due to injury. Here are those players:
- Week 1, Bills: Mario Addison
- Week 2, 49ers: Kerry Hyder
- Week 3, Colts: Justin Houston
- Week 7, Bills: Mario Addison
- Week 8, Chiefs: Frank Clark
- Week 11, Chargers: Melvin Ingram
- Week 12, Dolphins: Shaq Lawson
- Week 13, Raiders: Clelin Ferrell
- Week 14, Seahawks: Rasheem Green
- Week 15, Rams: Justin Hollins
- Week 16, Browns: Myles Garrett
- Week 17, Patriots: Chase Winovich
I looked at four categories: height, weight, arm length, and the percentage of snaps in the 2020 regular season in which the defender lined up in a three or four-point stance (one or two hands in the dirt) instead of a two-point stance (standing up).
Here is a breakdown of how much each statistic correlated with Becton’s allowed pressure rate (the percentage of his pass-blocking snaps in which he allowed pressure, via PFF); positive numbers indicate that Becton’s pressure rate tended to increase (worsen) as that particular metric increased:
|3pt/4pt stance %||0.51|
While these correlations aren’t terribly strong (1.0 is the max positive correlation and 0.5 is generally considered a “moderate” correlation), they are all positive to a decent degree, setting a clear trend across the four categories.
Becton’s pressure rate tended to worsen as his opponents got taller, bigger, and longer. Of course, that means the opposite is true; his pressure rate improved as his opponents got smaller.
How does that pertain to Lawson? Well, he checks two of the four boxes in terms of traits that favor Becton.
While Lawson is bulkier than more than half of Becton’s rookie-year matchups at 265 pounds (7 of Becton’s 12 matchups last season were under 265), he has below-average height and length, which plays to Becton’s advantage based on his production last season.
In the table above, the physical metric with the strongest correlation by a wide margin was arm length. Becton tended to struggle more against opponents who could match his own otherworldly length. He was more successful against opponents whose lack of length allowed him to consistently land the first blow.
Against four rushers with arms shorter than 33.5 inches, Becton was dominant, giving up two pressures on 126 protection snaps (1.6% rate). That includes a clean sweep against Chargers veteran Melvin Ingram.
Against all other rushers, Becton gave up 18 pressures on 267 protection snaps (6.7% rate).
Note: the 2020 NFL average for allowed pressure rate among offensive tackles was 5.3%.
Lawson has extremely short arms. His 31.5-inch arm measurement at the 2017 Combine ranks at the 3rd percentile all-time among edge rushers. That’s the same length as Ingram.
Height is another area where Lawson plays into Becton’s hands. Becton allowed a 4.2% pressure rate against eight rushers who stand at 6-foot-3 or shorter and a 6.7% pressure rate against four rushers who stand above 6-foot-3. Lawson is only 6-foot-2.
On the contrary, there are a couple of areas where Lawson is built to defeat Becton.
Weight is one of them. Lawson is fairly sturdy for his height, weighing in at 265 pounds. In 2020, Becton allowed a 3.9% pressure rate to rushers who weighed 260 pounds or less and a 6.3% pressure rate to rushers who weighed over 260 pounds.
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Finally, the category where I discovered the strongest correlation was stance preference.
The percentage of their defensive snaps in which Becton’s opponents lined up in a three or four-point stance versus in a two-point stance was a vital determinant in his success. I found a 0.51 correlation between Becton’s pressure rate and his opponent’s hand-in-the-dirt rate.
This means that Becton’s pressure rate had a decently strong tendency to skyrocket against opponents who spend a lot of time with their hand(s) in the dirt, and vice versa.
Against seven rushers who lined up in a three or four-point stance at least 75% of the time throughout the 2020 season, Becton allowed a pressure rate of 7.3%. He allowed a pressure rate of 1.9% against the other five rushers.
Lawson lined up with his hand(s) in the dirt on 79.0% of his snaps last season.
There is also one more thing going in Lawson’s favor – he proved that he could dominate tall left tackles last year.
In 2020, Lawson had a pressure rate of 21.8% against five left tackles who stand at 6-foot-7 or taller. That’s more than double the overall 2020 league average pressure rate for edge rushers (9.7%). His pressure rate against tackles under 6-foot-7 was 11.0%.
Both players have advantages, but Lawson is built to beat Becton
The overall edge certainly goes to Lawson, but both players have advantages on paper. While Lawson has some traits that caused Becton problems in his rookie year, Becton has more going his way than most realize.
Lawson lacks height and length. Becton smothered rushers with those deficiencies last season. This leaves some room to fairly criticize Becton for not competing with Lawson at least a little bit more closely.
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On the other hand, Lawson does bring the one trait that was Becton’s primary kryptonite last season: the ability to rush from a hand-in-the-dirt alignment.
Lawson usually rushes as a down lineman rather than from a stand-up position, and Becton has had trouble with those players. His three worst pass-protection performances in 2020 (giving up exactly 4 pressures and a pressure rate above 10.0% in each game) came against Myles Garrett, Clelin Ferrell, and Mario Addison – each of whom predominantly lines up with their hand(s) in the dirt.
Notably, Lawson has been seen lining up as a down lineman in the majority (if not all) of the footage released this offseason that features him rushing against Becton. Having the edge rushers play this way was a signature feature of Robert Saleh‘s 49ers defense.
Perhaps this is the particular trait of Lawson’s that causes Becton problems. Being one of the best rushers in the league from a hand-in-the-dirt alignment, it makes sense that Lawson is bringing this weakness to the forefront for Becton.
We also need to consider that Lawson obliterated tall left tackles last season. He knows how to use his smaller frame to his advantage against bigger matchups, which cancels out Becton’s tendency to be great at doing the opposite (using his size to dominate smaller players).
So, overall, I would say this is certainly a supremely tough matchup for Becton even if there are a couple of things in his favor.
While it would be ideal to see Becton show a little bit more resistance against Lawson – and he does have legitimate advantages that should allow him to do that – the results of this matchup have still been a major positive for Becton and the Jets.
It is immensely beneficial that Becton is learning about his weaknesses early in training camp so he can hone in on fixing them before the season starts. If Becton were still practicing against ordinary rushers like Jordan Jenkins and Tarell Basham, he would most likely have a harder time discovering the holes in his game, leaving him vulnerable once the stars come his way in the regular season.
Now having a star in his face on a daily basis, Becton is learning everything there is to know about the strengths and weaknesses of his game, allowing him to attain a complete understanding of how he can improve.