Carl Lawson, NY Jets, Film, Stats, PFF, Sacks, Pressures, Contract
Carl Lawson, New York Jets, Getty Images, Jet X Graphic

Let’s watch every one of Carl Lawson’s pass rush reps vs. the Bengals to get an idea of how the New York Jets’ star edge rusher is playing

Carl Lawson‘s much-anticipated return from his year-long absence due to an Achilles injury is not going quite as planned.

The New York Jets‘ big-money edge rusher was supposed to bring pass rush juice that the franchise has not seen in well over a decade. While Lawson has not been “bad”, per se, he certainly isn’t popping off the screen on gamedays like fans hoped. His quiet start is one of the primary reasons – if not the primary reason – the Jets’ vaunted pass rush is not living up to expectations.

Statistically, Lawson surprisingly has some decent numbers. Pro Football Focus has credited him with 9 pressures this season, which leads the Jets. It ties him for 28th among NFL edge rushers. That’s a disappointing ranking after he placed sixth with 64 pressures in 2020. However, Lawson is not playing a ton of reps, as he is only 45th among edge rushers with 72 pass rush snaps. So he’s been efficient in this regard.

But he has not been as efficient as he was in the past. Lawson’s pressure rate at PFF is 12.5%. That’s still above-average for his position (2021 NFL average for edge rushers was 10.2%) but it would be Lawson’s career-low. It’s a mark that puts him slightly above the middle of the pack and is a few notches below his elite 2020 mark of 14.6%.

NFL Next Gen Stats is even more bullish on Lawson’s performance this year. They say Lawson actually has 13 pressures this year, giving him a league-leading 20.6% pressure rate for edge rushers.

What gives? Is Lawson secretly playing dominant football as Next Gen Stats suggests? Is he playing “good, not great” like PFF suggests? Or are both outlets wrong, with the truth being that he is playing mediocre at best?

After watching all of Lawson’s pass rush reps this year, here are my takes.

Next Gen Stats is drastically overselling Lawson’s efficiency. Keep in mind that NGS’s pressure numbers are based on tracking data (rather than a human actually watching the film), so it’s prone to wonky conclusions. PFF’s estimation of Lawson’s pressure production is far more accurate based on what I’ve seen from Lawson’s film.

But here’s the problem: while Lawson is doing a decent job of winning and creating pressure (notice I said “decent”, not “great”, which is where he was in 2020), his wins aren’t nearly impactful enough.

Lawson has never been an amazing sack artist. He averages 6.5 sacks per 17 games for his career. But at his peak, Lawson was an absolute play-wrecker even without getting sacks. His wins and pressures were so quick and so dominant that they destroyed plays in a matter of 1.0-2.0 seconds after the snap. That’s what made Lawson such a weapon. Not only did he rack up pressures at a high frequency, but those pressures tended to be extremely valuable.

Now, most of Lawson’s “pressures” and “wins” aren’t anything to write home about.

It often takes Lawson a long time to win. Sometimes, he will have a good start to the rep, but the offensive lineman will recover and shield him off. There are times where he’ll create a minor amount of pocket cave-in but fail to get off the block and pursue the quarterback.

Also, some of his pressures were unblocked or on screens, so his current pressure total might be inflated a bit.

Personally, I don’t put a whole lot of stock into sacks when evaluating pass rushers. What I care about are quality wins, and right now, Lawson isn’t getting many of those.

I think Lawson looks great from an athletic standpoint. He still has excellent get-off and explosion off the line of scrimmage. There are also flashes of the same overwhelming power he’s always had.

I believe the primary issue is that Lawson hasn’t been quite as sharp from a technical standpoint as he usually is. The execution of his rush moves isn’t as pristine as it was two years ago. He seems a little rusty. Perhaps he just needs some time to get back into the groove after missing a whole year.

Lawson’s Week 3 game against the Bengals provides a strong summary of where he is currently at. He logged 30 pass rush snaps in this game (a season-high), and as Jets fans know, he did not stand out very often. However, there are some flashes of hope hidden in there.

Let’s watch all 30 of Lawson’s pass rush reps against Cincinnati to find out exactly what is going on with him.

Since every one of Lawson’s reps are included in here, there will be some plays where he doesn’t get a chance to do anything (screens, quick passes, rollouts), but those are part of the story so I figured I’d include them.

This review will also give you a chance to key in on some other Jets defensive linemen to see how they’re doing in the passing game. I’ll be focusing on Lawson with my analysis, but feel free to watch anybody you like.

Let’s dive in.

Lawson wears No. 58. Unless otherwise noted, you’ll see him playing right defensive end, lined up on the edge across from the left tackle.

Carl Lawson film vs. Bengals

Quick pass from Joe Burrow, nothing to really analyze here. As I said, there will be some clips like this one where we won’t have anything to talk about regarding Lawson.

Here’s the first glimpse of what I’m talking about when I say Lawson’s technical execution doesn’t seem as sharp.

Lawson goes for the hump move (sell upfield, get lineman’s momentum going vertically, then use inside arm to toss lineman upfield before working back inside). You can see some good burst from Lawson off the line, and he sets up the left tackle (former teammate Jonah Williams) right where he wants him to execute this move.

Where Lawson gets deterred is while he’s throwing the move. Williams catches Lawson’s inside/left arm while he’s going for the strike, taking away most of Lawson’s force. Lawson still gets a minor victory, as he does gain an inside angle to Burrow and could’ve pressured him if he held the ball a little longer, but this rep wasn’t as clean as we’ve seen from Lawson in the past (seen below).

Not much to discuss here. Lawson does his best to rush back and pressure Burrow on this trick play, but he also makes sure not to overcommit in his pursuit.

Lawson works a stunt with C.J. Mosley and it’s effective. Lawson uses an inside rip to pull Williams inside and does so successfully, allowing Mosley to loop around the edge untouched for a clean shot at Burrow. Unfortunately, the ball is out quick.

Not the best rep from Lawson here. He’s unprepared for the potential chip from the tight end and gets blasted onto the ground, making himself useless on this play.

The Bengals isolate Lawson on this creative play design and are able to beat him. Typically, all the edge rusher has to be ready for in this scenario is a handoff or throw, and Lawson defends both of those threats well. What he’s not ready for is a toss to a player coming across the field from the back side, and Burrow pops it by Lawson for the touchdown. Great design by Cincy. Really tough spot for Lawson to be in.

This touchdown was nullified by a holding penalty, drawn by Quinnen Williams. Check out the win by Quinnen to draw the hold. He’s having a great year.

Quick throw. Lawson does a nice job of working through the tight end and then appears to set up the bull rush nicely. Possibly could’ve been an impactful rush if the ball were held longer.

Williams wins the hand fighting match here. Lawson flashes his inside hand to try and get Williams to throw his punch but Williams doesn’t bite. Lawson then tries to chop down with his outside arm and completely misses since he was planning for Williams’s hands to be extended after the fake.

Even so, Lawson still gains an inside angle to the QB and could’ve gotten home with a little more time. How does he gain that angle? Purely based on his physical traits. Firstly, Lawson’s get-off speed is here is excellent. Then, at the end of the rush, Lawson is able to shove Williams out of the way even without great hand placement, showing his raw strength.

Still, though, it’s not as quick or dominant of a win that the Jets need from Lawson.

This rep encapsulates Lawson’s start to the year. He’s still a rare physical specimen who is getting close to making things happen based on that alone. But the technical execution isn’t there right now, leading to a lot of these “almost” plays rather than dominant victories.

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Once again, Lawson’s physical traits stand out. Watching his get-off and the sheer violence of how he attacks Williams on this play, I can’t be convinced that he has taken a step back physically. Lawson bulls Williams all the way into Burrow’s lap.

Again, though, we have an “almost” play. Lawson gets deep into the backfield but is stonewalled right in front of Burrow. At the depth of the rush, Lawson just can’t seem to shed the block. Williams anchors down and establishes a firm grip of Lawson’s chest. Lawson struggles to get Williams’s hands off him until it’s too late. Burrow escapes and throws a touchdown.

Lawson’s still got the juice. He just has to get his rhythm back when it comes to the timing, accuracy, and skill of his hands. Until then, the “almost” plays are going to keep stacking up.

Lawson seems to be going for another hump move but he sees the ball is out quickly so he stops mid-rush. Lawson does get his inside hand into Williams’s body, so there might have been potential for this move to be successful.

Lawson tries to chop Williams’s outside arm and then rip through to bend the corner, but Williams lands his outside hand into Lawson’s chest to slow him down and then slaps down Lawson’s inside arm to shut down the move.

So far, we’ve seen good patience from Williams across these reps. Lawson is often trying to get Williams to throw his hands early, but Williams is sitting back and letting Lawson waste motion.

Similar to a play we saw earlier, it’s another stunt with Lawson and Mosley. Lawson is again able to successfully pull Williams inside with a rip move to open up room for Mosley.

Perhaps Lawson could have done a better job of helping Mosley out by getting harder contact on the right guard while crashing inside, but this is still a pretty effective job of stunt penetration nonetheless.

Lawson moves to LDE on this play, facing the right tackle.

Nice speed rush from Lawson as a part of this 7-man pressure. Lawson explodes off the line (again, look at that get-off; he looks perfectly fine to me in terms of athleticism), uses a rip to deflect the right tackle’s punch, and turns the corner to get involved in hitting Burrow.

Lawson is back at RDE, facing the left tackle.

The Bengals have two tight ends block-and-release to help set up this deep shot. Lawson tries to swim over the tight end but is unsuccessful as the tight end is able to work into Lawson’s chest while he is mid-swim move.

Nothing to say about Lawson here as Burrow rolls to the opposite side.

Once again, Lawson is waiting for Williams to throw his hands so he can defeat them and get into his move, but it doesn’t happen, so Lawson’s planned move goes for naught and he is forced to just resort to bull rushing once he’s already fairly late in the rep.

Good speed rush from Lawson. He explodes off the line and doesn’t play any games, simply looking to burst around the corner as fast as possible. Lawson throws the rip and bends the corner, getting a hand on Burrow. It’s a possible hit or sack with a little more time.

Still, though, Lawson could have won cleaner. As Lawson is turning the corner, he uses his outside arm to try and chop Williams’s outside arm before he can make contact, but Lawson misses, and Williams gets his hand into Lawson’s upper body. This slows Lawson just enough to prevent what would’ve likely been a highlight-reel sack if Lawson could’ve cleanly landed that chop.

I think Lawson is trying to penetrate for a stunt with Quinnen here, although I’m not entirely sure on that considering the distance between Lawson and Quinnen. If it is a stunt, though, Lawson again does a good job of pulling Jonah inside with a rip, but he gets too deep and doesn’t get any contact on the left guard, which renders the stunt useless as Quinnen is still left in a one-on-one.

If this is a one-on-one rush from Lawson, it’s an explosive rip move that allows him to get decent penetration, but Jonah gets his hand into Lawson’s chest and Lawson is unable to shed.

It’s possible Lawson may have been planning to carry Jonah inside before working back outside with a spin (a move Lawson has used in the past), but he scrapped those plans when he saw Burrow stepping up and scrambling to the right side.

The Bengals are allowing the Jets to get into the backfield here since it’s a screen, but Lawson still does a nice job of getting in Burrow’s face as quickly as possible to affect the throw.

Lawson goes for another speed rush and this time Williams is ready. Williams gets vertical depth and quickly opens to match Lawson. He throws his punch and catches Lawson’s chest with his outside hand, shutting him down.

To Lawson’s credit, he is able to spin back inside and grabs a hold of Burrow, so he once again could’ve done damage with just a little more time. But as we’ve said a bunch of times already, Lawson wouldn’t have needed more time to do damage if he won more cleanly.

It looks like Lawson goes for the hump move again. He sells upfield before pushing off his outside foot and attacking Williams. Lawson raises his hands to sell the bull rush and gets Williams to throw his punch.

This opens a window for Lawson to get his hands underneath Williams and shove him up the field, but before Lawson makes contact, Williams has already landed his punch on Lawson, thwarting his momentum and rendering the attempted hump move powerless.

I think Lawson was relying too much on multi-faceted finesse moves in this game. By this play, it’s already the third quarter and Williams is still sitting back and playing patiently on Lawson while the Bengals continue to get the ball out pretty quickly. I feel like Lawson should have adjusted and started relying more on straight-up bull rushes or speed rushes.

Lawson is left unblocked off the back side and gets the hit on Burrow. It’s the easiest QB hit he’ll ever get.

Lawson mixes it up and tries to go for an inside spin. It seems to be minorly effective as Lawson gets an angle to work inside, but Williams is in position to match him and at least shield Lawson off from the QB.

Maybe Lawson’s best rep of the game. Yes, it’s a screen by the Bengals, so they are inviting defenders into the backfield – but only to an extent. There’s no screen play where the QB is supposed to get this hard, this quickly.

Lawson goes for the speed rush. This time, he lands the chop with his outside arm, and that opens the door for him to bend the corner on a flat angle. Lawson rips through and lays a big shot on Burrow, forcing him to throw the ball away.

This play shows you how fast Lawson can win when his hand usage is on the money.

Lawson goes for a long-arm that does not seem to be overly effective, although it’s a quick throw.

Quinnen crashes outside to open up Lawson on a stunt to the inside. Lawson patiently waits for Quinnen to crash down and then explodes inside, looping behind him.

Lawson arguably enters the pocket with too much aggression here, as he overruns the QB and does not capitalize on a favorable one-on-one opportunity. Knowing the center is going to be turning his hips outside while attempting to pick him up, Lawson tries to sell hard to the outside before coming back inside with a spin. However, the center uses Lawson’s momentum against him and pushes him outside, buying just enough time for Burrow to get off a long throw.

Yes, Lawson eventually wins the angle on Burrow and comes within a step of getting the hit/sack, but this took a long time to transpire. It’s not often that you’ll get a chance to hit or sack the quarterback after four whole seconds, which is approximately how long it takes before Lawson gets close to Burrow here.

Since this was a long-developing rush to start out (a stunt in which he was patient before getting into the rush), I would have liked to see Lawson just try to bull the center directly into Burrow rather than getting fancy and trying to set up the spin.

At last, Lawson goes for a quick power move on Williams, and he gets one of his cleanest wins of the day.

Lawson sells upfield and then flashes his inside hand as if he is setting up another speed rush. Notice how Williams responds when Lawson raises that hand. Williams instinctively starts opening up to the outside in preparation to match Lawson upfield. This leaves Williams in a vulnerable position, and Lawson quickly takes advantage as he explodes into the bull rush. It’s highly effective as he blasts Williams behind Burrow and quickly earns himself a shot at taking Burrow down.

Unfortunately, Lawson fails to finish. He extends his inside arm and grabs Burrow’s shoulder but Burrow runs through it, breaking loose for a scramble. You want to see Lawson finish this off with a sack.

This rep is an example of Lawson’s extremely short arms (31.5 inches, 3rd percentile among EDGE) coming into play. His short arms make it tougher for him to finish sacks, helping to explain why his career sack totals aren’t very good despite his excellent pressure numbers.

Nevertheless, wins of this caliber are what you want to see more of from Lawson. If he is beating tackles like that on a consistent basis, he is going to get some sacks and destroy some plays, even if things didn’t quite work out on this rep.

Lawson loops inside on a stunt. There’s not much to break down about him on this play – just watch Quinnen blast straight through the center and the right guard. My goodness.

Lawson goes for the speed rush and misses the chop as he gets caught in the chest. He gets a step on Williams and has a lane to Burrow’s initial set point, but Burrow steps up. Lawson spins off Williams to try and get back into the pocket. Sheldon Rankins gets the sack.

Carl Lawson isn’t far from being his old self

I don’t think Lawson is far off from getting back to producing at his peak level. Physically, he seems to have the same remarkable capabilities he did when the Jets signed him. In fact, it’s those physical tools that are responsible for most of his production right now. It’s the fundamental stuff that isn’t clicking.

This would not be the first time Lawson has taken his time to get rolling after returning from a serious injury.

Lawson missed the final nine games of the 2018 season with an ACL tear. Upon returning in 2019, he had a rough start to the year. Lawson missed four of the team’s first eight games (two sets of two games), and in the four games he did play, Lawson had 1.0 sack, 2 QB hits, and 7 total pressures with a pressure rate of 7.1%.

But then Lawson exploded over his final eight games, registering 4.0 sacks, 20 QB hits (2nd-most in the NFL over that span), and 29 total pressures with a tremendous pressure rate of 15.8%.

Lawson might be perfectly fine from a physical standpoint, but it could be taking him some time to get his mind and body back in sync. Pass rushing is extremely tactical. It’s a lot more than just athleticism.

Fourteen games remain. Let’s see if Lawson can hit his stride as the season moves on.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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