What we could expect out of Robert Saleh's defense without Carl Lawson: 'They might have enough to be OK'

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Robert Saleh walks around practice during stretches
Robert Saleh walks around practice during stretches

It had to be a sickening feeling for Robert Saleh, as he watched as his best defensive player get carted off the field with a season-ending injury on Thursday. It was also probably a familiar feeling, too.

Because as devastating as it was for the Jets head coach to see defensive end Carl Lawson tear his Achilles, things were worse for Saleh just 11 months ago. That’s when, as the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, he watched Nick Bosa get carted off with a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2 at the Meadowlands. Another pass-rusher, Dee Ford, was already out with a back injury. And he lost defensive tackle Solomon Thomas that day, too.

A few days later, he was asked how his defense could possibly recover, if he could manufacture enough pressure with the healthy bodies he had left.

“I don’t know about trying to manufacture pressure,” Saleh said back then. “We’ve got tremendous faith in the guys who are coming in to replace them. All these men can play professional football. They’re the best in the world at what they do. And so the expectation is that we go in there and we play to the best of our ability and we trust that the result will be in our favor.”

That almost certainly will be what Saleh says on Saturday night after the Jets’ preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, which will be his first chance to address the devastating loss of Lawson. He’ll point to the middle of his defensive line that features two former first-round picks -- Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins – and he’ll highlight promising young players like John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff.

But there’s no doubt the Jets were counting on Lawson for a lot of their pass rush, especially after seeing how dominant he was this spring. That’s why they gave him a three-year, $45 million contract with $30 million guaranteed. He brought so much energy and speed, even his teammates were lauding him as a real difference-maker.

Now, without him, do the Jets have any difference-makers on defense? Do they have enough to even sustain a pass rush? Are their players good enough for this defense to survive?

Jul 31, 2021; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive end Carl Lawson (58) looks on during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.
Jul 31, 2021; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive end Carl Lawson (58) looks on during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.

“I know they think they’re deep and that (Saleh) said they could come at you in ‘waves,’” said one NFL scout. “But that depth is young and untested. They have players there that I like, but are any of them other than Q (Quinnen Williams) guaranteed starters anywhere else?

“They might have enough to be OK. But they won’t be able to replace Lawson’s speed on the outside. And without that, a lot of problems could trickle down.”

That “trickle-down” part is the worry. Without Lawson, teams could be able to pay more attention to Williams and Rankins on the interior of the defensive line, which will make the pass rush weaker. And with a weaker pass rush, the Jets’ very young secondary is in more danger of being exposed.

There are internal ways to compensate. Saleh seems high on Franklin-Myers and Huff, who both have performed well this summer. But the two of them have combined for just seven career sacks. Veteran Ronnie Blair is a Saleh favorite, but the defensive end hasn’t played in a game since tearing his ACL in November, 2019. The Jets also signed Vinny Curry in the offseason, but he remains on the non-football injury list and there’s no indication he’ll be off it any time soon.

There are free agents the Jets can (and may) investigate, like Everson Griffin, Olivier Vernon or Adrian Clayborn. But Griffen seems like he’s on the verge of rejoining the Vikings, Vernon is coming off Achilles surgery in January, and all three are over 30.

“Do you think if there was a healthy guy who could really rush the passer, he’d still be available? In this league?” said one NFL personnel executive. “Not likely. They’re just too valuable. Right now, the Jets are better off going with the young, fresh legs they have.”

New York Giants wide receiver David Sills (84) is tackled by New York Jets linebacker Jamien Sherwood (44) during the first half at MetLife Stadium.
New York Giants wide receiver David Sills (84) is tackled by New York Jets linebacker Jamien Sherwood (44) during the first half at MetLife Stadium.

That is likely what they’re going to do, since it’s what the 49ers did last season. The 49ers did sign veteran Ziggy Ansah after their run of injuries, but he only lasted a couple of weeks before suffering a season-ending injury of his own. In the end, Saleh relied on his two first-rounders on the line (Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw) and managed to get a surprising 8 ½ sacks out of Bosa’s replacement, Kerry Hyder.

Maybe Franklin-Myers or Huff can do that, too. But even if they can dramatically increase their sack totals, they still might not be able to duplicate what Lawson was expected to bring.

“(Lawson) was a terrible finisher in Cincinnati, but there’s no doubt he was disruptive,” the scout said. “It sounds like (the media) saw that this summer. He gets around the quarterback. He forces them to rush or change plays. A healthy Lawson outside with a healthy Williams inside could’ve been one heck of a 1-2 punch.”

What can the Jets do now that one of those punches is missing? Well, Saleh’s 49ers survived their injury blows and still ended up with the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense. Then again, a pass rush that was fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks in 2019, fell to just 21st in the league with 30 sacks – one fewer than the Jets.

“And that was a better defense and they were in their fourth year in (Saleh’s) scheme, so they were able to hold it together better than expected,” said an NFC scout who watched the 49ers several times last year. “But the Jets look like they’re going to rely on so much youth and it’s going to be exposed if the quarterback gets any time in the pocket.”

So the bottom line for the Jets is this: They can survive this loss if the young players they now have to rely on – especially up front -- turn out to be as good as the Jets think they are. They can’t rely on outside help. They need Huff and Franklin-Myers to step into a larger role, especially if Curry isn’t healthy. And the job of the very young players in the Jets’ secondary just got a little harder than it was.

They could still be a good defense, but they lost a potentially great player, and there’s just no way that won’t hurt.

“They have some promising players, some decent talent, but nobody who brings what Lawson could’ve brought them,” the executive said. “There’s a reason they gave him all that money. He was the lynchpin of what they wanted to do.

“Without him, they could be OK. But there’s just no way that defense will be what it could’ve been.”