On a third-and-10 play Monday night, Carl Lawson was off the mark by just a second.
Early in the fourth quarter of the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, Lawson rushed Ben Roethlisberger from the right side and tattooed the Steelers’ veteran quarterback just after he threw a pass.
A sack would’ve brought Lawson closer to a record he is likely to shatter this season: most sacks in a single-season by a Bengals rookie.
The 6-foot-2 graduate of Milton High School was a fourth-round pick by Cincinnati’s NFL team this past year, and already has 7.5 sacks this season, which is just two shy of the record. There are many fourth-round picks who hardly see the field as NFL rookies, but this native of north Fulton County is making an impact right away for the Bengals.
“I don't really see it as that big of a thing,” Lawson told ESPN. “As far as myself, I want to compete with the guys who are the best in the league as far as pass-rushers. I'm not really worried about that sack record."
Going into Monday night’s game against the Steelers — which wound up being a loss for the 5-7 Bengals — Lawson led all rookies in sacks and quarterback pressures, of which he has 49.
At Milton High School, Lawson was an AJC Super 11 player, selected to All-Region and All-Area teams, and was considered one of the best defensive prospects in the country. Rivals named him a five-star recruit and tabbed him as the best weakside defensive end prospect for the class of 2013.
After a senior season at Milton where he had 27 sacks, Lawson committed to Auburn over offers from Clemson, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, UCLA and others. In four years with the Tigers, Lawson played in 33 games, tallied 67 tackles and 14 sacks. His 24 tackles-for-losses ranks 19th all-time at Auburn.
There are kids at Milton High School today who tell athletic director Gary Sylvestri that they want to be like Lawson. But Lawson’s former coach has to remind the youngsters that getting to the NFL was no easy task for him.
“Carl never missed a workout. Ever," Sylvestri told ESPN. "Carl never missed a practice ever. Never ever. You could tell the kid was special physically, but the kid never missed anything. And that's what I try to tell kids today. They say 'I want to be like Carl Lawson.' And I say, 'Well, you missed two workouts already. He hasn't missed one his whole career.’”
For Lawson, the first sacks of his NFL career came on Sept. 24 when he got former NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers 2.5 times. A week later, he thought he forced the first fumble of his career on a strip-sack of Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer, but it was ruled an incompletion — and without a mouthguard, Lawson also lost two teeth on the play.
The Bengals have four games left this season, and while the playoffs might be a long shot, the sack record is a real possibility for Lawson.
Cincinnati will face the Bears, Vikings, Lions and Ravens before the season is over, who rank 18th, 2nd, 30th, and 9th in sacks allowed, respectively. The offensive lines of Minnesota and Baltimore could be tough to crack, but Lawson should have plenty of chances against Chicago and Detroit.
“I'm really worried about what my peers say about me, the guys I play against,” Lawson told ESPN. “The best feeling I get is when guys come over to me after the game and say, 'You're good' and stuff like that. So as long as everybody in the league knows I'm a good player, I don't really care what anybody else thinks.”