We lamented his absence for all of 2014. During the offseason leading up to the Louisville game he was hyped as much as Jeremy Johnson was for the offense. Carl Lawson! Healthy! The pass rush is BACK, baby!
On the opening snap of 2015, he chased Lamar Jackson out of the pocket and forced the interception. He had a sack in the first half. Three quarterback hurries! The defense shut Louisville down for much of that half as they completely shut them out.
Slowly, though, as the half continued, worry began to creep in. Carl limped off after one play. He got back in the game, though, and played a bit more. In the second half, he didn't play a down.
Hip Flexor, we were told. He'll be fine! He'll sit out Jacksonville State and be back for LSU!
Carl Lawson would not play again until Auburn's 8th game of the season against Ole Miss.
Does Carl Make That Big A Difference?
In a perfectly timed article, AL.com examined just what impact Carl Lawson had on Auburn's defense. It turns out, there is a very demonstrable difference to the tune of 50+ yards per game. It wasn't just in his personal numbers; Lawson didn't record a single sack after his return. It wasn't in his QB hurries; though he did total eight of those in the final six games.
Lawson affected play by making teams focus on him. He abused Laremy Tunsil at times in his first game back while he was still rusty. Three of Lawson's eight QB hurries in those final games came during the Ole Miss contest. When opposing teams had to worry about double-teaming Lawson, it opened the door for others.
As a team, the Tigers recorded 19 total sacks during the season. 12 of those were games Carl Lawson played in. The sack numbers increase just by having him in the game. He's an excellent run-stopper, as well. Go back to the 2013 Iron Bowl and his stuff of TJ Yeldon for proof of that if you need it.
More than just that, his leadership on the defense drives the others to perform at a higher level.
When Carl Went Down, What Was The Plan?
Again, we saw issues that we had in 2014. Auburn lacked a good pass rush without Lawson. Cassanova McKinzy moved over to Buck. Gimel President got more playing time, including a sack against an Arkansas line that was stingy about giving up sacks all season long. DaVonte Lambert picked up a sack at Kentucky. Auburn still got production, but it was actually at a level worse than 2014 without Lawson for the whole season.
Where was Byron Cowart? The nation's #1 defensive end recruit for the 2014 did not record a sack in his limited action. I don't know if he was just slow developing to the college game or what, but it sure didn't seem like that would happen given his high school footage. He didn't see the field much, though, so it's obvious Rodney Garner saw more effort and drive in those who saw playing time ahead of him.
The player that really shined out of all of this was Cassanova McKinzy. Of the seven sacks recorded in Lawson's absence, he had three of them. His injury in the bowl game was heartbreaking. Hopefully he comes back strong in the NFL combines and Auburn's Pro Day. He showed this season that he really can be a big time performer.
Would Lawson Have Added Much to the Games He Missed?
Well, see, here's an interesting thing. No. A fully healthy Carl Lawson throughout the 2015 season wouldn't have added too much. All I can do is project my own thoughts, but let's look at the games he missed:
Jacksonville State. An Auburn victory. Carl may have made it less of a struggle, though. His help sealing the edges for the zone reads and rushing the passer may have forced JSU into more errant throws and kept them from performing as well as they did on offense. Still, Auburn won.
LSU. No, I don't think Carl would have helped much at all in this one. The game would be a bit less embarrassing, maybe, but that's it. Then again, perhaps his play and his leadership would have helped Auburn stop LSU enough to keep them in the game going into the second half. The offense performed much better, then, but that was also against some of LSU's reserves.
Mississippi State. Would a healthy Carl have won the Mississippi State game? Maybe, but the offense's struggles were the issue, again.
San Jose State. We won by a fair margin, so no impact.
Kentucky. Auburn wins. No impact.
Arkansas. Auburn loses in overtime. This is one of the only games where I think a healthy Carl may have been enough for the Tigers to win. I think he could have created plays in overtime. Maybe with him Auburn is able to stop some of Arkansas' first half scoring drives.
What this all comes down to is that while the defense was very bad for much of 2015, they were still good enough that a strong Auburn offense would have overcome it. Plus, if Auburn's offense is keeping the ball longer and scoring more points, then the defense isn't on the field enough to be as bad!
Auburn Needs Pass Rushers
I've been very critical of Auburn's defensive line over the last two years. In 2013 we had Dee Ford who was a wrecking ball on opposing offenses. In 2014, no one person stepped up. No one really did in 2015, either. Auburn's best seasons are one where it has a dominant defensive lineman who records double-digit sacks. You would think that with the talent Auburn has recruited over the last few years that there's no way that would not happen even if one person goes down with an injury.
Losing the primary pass rusher for a good part of a second season was a huge blow to Auburn. There's no excuse for not having someone able to step up and fill the void. Cass McKinzy did an admirable job, but he was playing out of his normal position. This is one thing that went wrong that is definitely on the heads of the coaching staff for not having someone else ready to step up and take over the roll of a dominant pass rusher.