After earning their first playoff berth since 1999, the Buffalo Bills were bust throughout the offseason, overhauling their roster to ensure that their appearance wasn’t a fluke, but a sign of progress. At the beginning of the NFL free agency period, the team’s objective was clear: Improve the defensive line. Kyle Williams was coaxed into returning for at least one more year, but playing with subpar talent in 2017, it was clear that he needed an improvement alongside him. Brandon Beane signed Star Lotulelei to a five-year $50 million deal. But the upgrading didn’t end with the former Utah Ute, before awarding edge rusher Trent Murphy with a three-year, $21 million contract.
Murphy’s contract has an out clause in 2019, but you can bet that money sent a message to Shaq Lawson – a former first-round draft pick by the Bills and the current starting defensive end. While there is a potential out in the contract in 2019, that type of money definitely sent a message to the incumbent starter and former first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson.
Shaq Lawson has traveled a bumpy road since being selected with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Injuries have limited him to just 21 of a potential 32 games played and his role within former coach Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme probably wasn’t ideal for his skill-set. Furthermore, his weight fluctuated as he was asked to play different roles. Drafted as a traditional defensive end, Lawson dropped weight to play outside linebacker before he was asked to bulk up again to move back to end.
His body couldn’t get up to speed with the constant weight fluctuation. It’s difficult to remove all blame from Lawson, but these issues definitely played a role in the former ACC Defensive Player of the Year’s slowed development.
Shaq Lawson on a mission
But this year, Lawson doesn’t want to hear excuses. He accepts responsibility and is on a mission to prove his doubters wrong, he told Josh Reed of WIVB.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”22″]”Alright it’s the third year, I’m a former 1st round pick, it’s time for me to show why I got drafted in the first round. It’s time to do my job and not let these Bills fans down and the coaches down.”[/perfectpullquote]
The former Clemson Tiger only managed to get on the field for 436 snaps last season and when in between the lines, he was one hell of a run defender. Lawson tallied 19 solo tackles and 14 stops versus the run. Lawson has always utilized good hand placement as the foundation for his ability to stack and disengage against offensive lineman and tight ends. That trait makes him the ideal base end in defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 scheme.
On this play, Lawson is matched up 1-on-1 with the best blocking tight end in the league, Rob Gronkowski, as the Patriots run a duo concept. At the snap, he leads with his hands, eyes on the ball and is able to match the strength of Gronk to maintain his gap integrity.
When Shaq Lawson is able to win the battle of hand placement, he can guide his man and disengage whether the opponent runs at or away from him. That ability shows up in the play below, against another one of the NFL’s premier tight ends, Greg Olsen. The Panthers run outside zone away from Lawson, but his technique and power never allow Olsen to secure the backside block. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander shoots the gap forcing RB Jonathan Stewart to cut it back where Lawson is waiting.
Lawson opens things up
Against the run, Shaq Lawson’s ability to occupy and disrupt blocking schemes opens up opportunities for his teammates, specifically the linebackers. The Panthers attempt to out-leverage the defense by changing the formation pre-snap. But Lawson absolutely blows up the pin-and-pull run.
As the tight end executes the down block, Lawson continues fighting and is able to force the puller to disengage because Lawson has impeded his line. That slight disruption allows linebacker Preston Brown to stay clean, leverage the ball and bring down the running back. He is just too tough to handle for tight ends.
Later in the game, the Panthers insert an extra lineman and run a similar concept. The lineman does a much better job of moving Lawson, but even with high pads, he’s able to disengage and make the tackle.
Shaq Lawson shows flashes
For a team that ranked No. 29 against the run in 2017 (124.9-yards-per game,)Lawson’s run defense will still be needed even after the defensive line upgrades. The Bills’ recent acquisitions should make things easier for Lawson and improve the team’s run defense as a whole.
Here, you see Shaq Lawson with his eyes on the tight end, rather than the football. That’s because he’she is reading the blocking concept on the snap, rather than having his eye on the ball and timing the snap. He is very good at diagnosing blocking schemes and taking it to tight ends.
He isn’t the type of defensive end that plays reckless or out of control. In fact, Lawson has pretty good recognition and that helps him process run to pass quickly. He rarely bites on play action fakes and allows the QB to break contain.
Lawson senses the offensive lineman’s quick pass set and short drop by Brees, knowing that he isn’t going to ‘get home.’ Instead, he’s aware enough to get his arms up and get a hand in the way of the passing lane to notch a PBU.
Gotta have a plan
As a pass rusher, you must have a plan and when watching Shaq Lawson, I consistently see him rely on his power, utilizing a simple bull rush. Once that’s noted in an opposing team’s scouting report, the tackles know how to deal with him, just as shown in the following play. Lawson brings his hands up to bull rush and the tackle easily controls them and negates Lawson from the play.
I won’t deny that part of this issue is Lawson’s role and particular responsibility. Since he’s often in a six-technique – or heads-up against tight ends – he’s tasked with winning one-on-one battles, something he struggles to do with when he needs to use proper technique and pass rush moves, without simply bullying his man with sheer strength. Due to his alignment and role, his ability to win a two-way go against a tackle is limited after the tight end releases.
Lawson has reportedly been working on his quickness and it is sorely needed. Offensive tackles are not threatened by him. If you do not threaten tackles up the field you are not putting stress on their kick-slide and leverage. It will allow tackles to get aggressive, rather than execute a vertical, deep kick-slide, the tackle can use angle sets and meet Lawson out wide because they aren’t worried about his pass rush moves.
If you do not threaten upfield you must be able to win the edge with technique and Lawson’s primary pass rush moves struggled at times last year. Here he tries to execute a stab-chop but is unable to chop with his left hand to clear the tackle. It’s disappointing because he actually has the edge and line to flatten to the QB, but the inability to execute the finishing hand move to win the corner costs him a possible sack.
He has not been able to find the consistency needed in order to be the difference maker that the team had expected. At times he stalls out after his primary move. On the following play, he does a good job of rushing upfield, under control as he is diagnosing run to pass. But once the play fake has taken its course, he fails to transition to his secondary move. Lawson has the tackle on skates and an inside lane to the QB but the attack stalls.
Lawson’s 6.1 pass rush productivity which included 18 total pressures ranked him 59 in the league amongst defensive ends. His inability to string pass rush moves together forced the staff to get creative. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier often used Lawson as a defensive tackle on obvious pass rushing situations and utilized linebacker Lorenzo Alexander as the edge rusher. This was smart because he has the power to push the pocket or the quickness to win on stunts and games.
Will Shaq Lawson put it all together?
Early in OTAs, Trent Murphy saw reps with the first-team, and if that’s a trend, Lawson may find himself as the reserve defensive end. While not ideal for Lawson, it could be a blessing in disguise because he wouldn’t play as much on early downs. Therefore, he will be fresh when asked to rush the quarterback from a wide alignment or in sub-packages as a defensive tackle. He’d also potentially rotate in and out at the right defensive end spot, where he thrived at Clemson. In 2017, 99.1-percent of his snaps were from left end. Possibly a simple flip to an alignment he’s confident with could open up the effectiveness of his pass rush.
There is certainly a lot of work on Shaq Lawson’s plate, but being available is priority No. 1. If he can stay healthy, all of his training done throughout the offseason can be put to the test and he’ll finally be able to justify the first-round draft status that follows him.