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Returning NY Jets starter was invisible in Cowboys loss

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By: Michael Nania

Carl Lawson looked extremely rusty in his season debut for the New York Jets

The New York Jets’ pass rush is arguably the heart and soul of the team. It was dominant in 2022 and remained that way in the 2023 season opener, as the Jets sacked Josh Allen five times (and hit him four additional times) en route to a 22-16 win. New York’s ability to get after the quarterback is what anchors the entire defense.

But in the Jets’ Week 2 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the pass rush was frustratingly dormant. Across 41 Dak Prescott dropbacks, the Jets recorded only one sack and two quarterback hits. Prescott enjoyed a plethora of pockets that appeared reminiscent of the cushy confines presented to Zach Wilson at BYU in 2020.

Numerous Jets defenders contributed to the poor pass rushing output in Dallas. We’ll touch on everyone else later, but there is one particular player whose performance is concerning for the Jets: Carl Lawson.

Lawson, who started all 17 games for the Jets in 2022, returned to the field after missing the season opener due to his continued recovery from a back injury sustained in August.

The Jets eased Lawson back into action. He played only 26% of the Jets’ defensive snaps (23 total), less than half of his 2022 season average (58%).

Despite the low snap count to keep him fresh, Lawson looked incredibly rusty in his season debut. Across 13 pass-rush snaps, Lawson did not win a single pass-rush rep. PFF credited him with a pass-rush win rate of 0%.

As you can see in the clips below (Lawson wears No. 58 and lines up at right defensive end), Lawson’s struggles were a major factor in allowing Prescott to enjoy so many comfortable pockets.

New York primarily utilized Lawson in early-down run situations. All but two of his snaps came on first or second down. Most of the time, he took the field as part of a defensive line unit that also featured Micheal Clemons, Solomon Thomas, and Al Woods.

None of those three players are known for their pass rushing; they’re out there to stop the run on first and second down. As part of this unit, Lawson’s job is to provide some pass-rush juice to make up for the lack of it provided by the run-stuffers alongside him. He could not do that against Dallas, and it led to Prescott getting a ton of clean pockets.

While it was only one game and Lawson has plenty of time to bounce back, this was a concerning performance for Lawson for a few reasons.

The main appeal of Lawson going into 2023 was his health. He was set to enter the season more than a year removed from his Achilles injury without any other injuries since then. This would theoretically give him a great opportunity to get closer to the form he displayed as a Bengal in 2020.

However, Lawson’s late-offseason back injury appears to be ruining those plans. Lawson clearly isn’t fully healthy. This is supported not only by his lack of production in Week 2, but also his lack of explosiveness.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Lawson had an average get-off time of 1.00 second against Dallas. This is his worst mark as a Jet and well behind his Jets career average of 0.77 seconds. For reference, the league average among edge rushers this year is 0.84 seconds. Lawson’s 1.00-second mark ranked 78th out of the 91 edge rushers with at least 10 pass-rush snaps in Week 2 (pre-MNF).

Lawson’s underwhelming debut is particularly troubling because the Jets had their first-round pick, Will McDonald, standing on the sidelines in street clothes as a healthy scratch. The Jets removed McDonald from the lineup to make room for Lawson, and he didn’t do anything to justify the decision.

Once again, I want to make it clear that Lawson deserves time to work things out. He shouldn’t be buried because of one game coming off his return from an injury. Still, it’s fair to question the Jets’ decision to bench McDonald for Lawson considering the woeful results.

Going forward, it would be difficult for New York to justify making McDonald inactive again. The Dallas game proved that the Jets’ pass rush, while great, isn’t the automatically unstoppable machine they hoped it would be. They need all the pass-rush help they can get, which means McDonald has to be on the field.

Other pass rush takeaways

While Lawson’s performance was the main concern, there were also some other pass rushers who got corralled by the Cowboys’ offensive line.

Jermaine Johnson is the biggest culprit. While Johnson continues to thrive as a run defender and also provides a tremendous motor, he still isn’t winning at an ideal rate as a pass rusher, continuing his struggles in this department as a rookie.

Johnson was credited with one win over 29 pass-rush snaps against Dallas (3.5% win rate). Through two games, his 6.3% pass-rush win rate ranks 56th among the 76 edge rushers with at least 30 pass-rush snaps.

The Jets’ interior defensive line, sans Quinnen Williams, was silent. The trio of Quinton Jefferson, Solomon Thomas, and Al Woods combined for two pass-rush wins on 49 pass-rush snaps (4.1% win rate).

There’s no reason to worry about Jefferson, who had a great game in Week 1 and is consistently a solid pass rusher each year. Thomas is also having a good start to the season against the run.

However, I’m starting to become slightly concerned with Woods’ role in this defensive line. While his run defense is solid, he is getting caught on the field for too many passing snaps, and it’s hurting the pass rush.

Woods has played 29 pass-rush snaps this season and has not recorded a single win. As you can see in this montage, Woods’ pass rushing is extremely stagnant at this stage of his career – it was never his strength in the first place, and now that he is 36, the weakness is only accentuated. If the opponent passes while he is on the field, it’s a near guarantee that he is going to be locked in place and contribute little to the play.

New York needs to try and figure out a way to ensure Woods can continue helping their run defense while minimizing his negative effect on the pass rush. Perhaps they could do this by giving more snaps to Williams on first and second down while saving Woods only for the most obvious run situations. While Williams is playing a career-high 70% of the snaps this year, that’s still well below some of his fellow stars, such as Jeffery Simmons (92% this year) and Jonathan Allen (89%).

Williams himself had a solid game as a pass rusher in Dallas, recording a 14.8% pass-rush win rate (4 pass-rush wins), although he wasn’t quite as dominant as hoped in a matchup against backup LG Chuma Edoga. Additionally, Edoga left the game about midway through and was replaced by the third-string left guard.

Williams was utterly dominant in the run game, though. He racked up five run stuffs, with those five runs combining for -1 yards.

On the positive side, Micheal Clemons showed a lot of promise with a 25% pass-rush win rate (4 wins). All of that work came off the edge. Bryce Huff had a second consecutive excellent game with a 21.4% pass-rush win rate (3 wins). Huff looks just as stellar as he did last year.

New York’s pass rush remains one of the most intimidating in the sport – one game against a great Cowboys team does not change that. Regardless, Week 2 proved this unit isn’t perfect. There are concerns that must be addressed if the Jets want to field the league’s best pass rush.

Lawson must get back to his 2022 form, at the very least (at this point, a bounce-back to pre-2022 seems like a dream scenario). Johnson needs to build off the progress he showed in the preseason and take a legitimate second-year leap. The Jets can also try to minimize Woods’ role in the passing game.

Above all, the Jets need to get their first-round pick on the field and let him show the tantalizing skills he flashed all throughout the preseason. Will McDonald isn’t just a long-term project for this team – he can help them win games right now. Unless Carl Lawson and Jermaine Johnson start to play substantially better than they did in Dallas, there’s no reason McDonald should be inactive again.

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Originally posted on Jets XFactor