For all that is made about the Cowboys offense, DeMarcus Lawrence is making a major impact on the other side of the ball.
Pass rushers are judged by one thing in the NFL; their sack totals. At the end of the season, general managers, coaching staffs, players, and fans all flock to that one statistic to see how “productive” a certain pass rusher is. Sacks will always be king in the NFL.
As they should be.
There’s a lot of data that shows why sacking the quarterback is so important for defenses. I will try to sum it all up in two short paragraphs.
In 2016, when a defense recorded a sack on a given drive, 84 percent of the time, the drive was “killed”, per Derrik Klassen of Setting The Edge (killed just means that the team failed to record another first down or score points). Sacks on third downs are even more valuable than on first or second down as a third down sack results in a “killed” drive on more than 96 percent of the time.
But getting a sack doesn’t just stop a drive and/or take points off of the board. It can also rattle quarterbacks and cause them to panic in the pocket. It can shift the way an offensive coordinator calls a game. Sacks (or the fear of getting sacked) can determine what players or personnel groups are on the field. This is why that sack total will always be the No.1 most important stat for pass rushers.
But just because a player doesn’t record a sack in a given game, doesn’t mean he wasn’t productive or useful. On Sunday, DeMarcus Lawrence’s lack of production didn’t match his impact on the game. In the stat sheet, Lawrence finished the game with just two total tackles. No sacks.
Anyone who watched the game saw how disruptive Lawrence was against the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, Lawrence finished with an overall game grade of 81.5, despite not registering a sack or drawing a holding call. So how did he earn such a great grade without bringing the quarterback down once? That is the subject of today’s film room.
First and foremost, let us start off with the two penalties that Lawrence “drew”. Because of his reputation around the league as one of the hottest pass rushers in the NFL (second in the NFL in sacks this season with 10.5), tackles have gotten antsy when they face him. They know that Lawrence not only has the speed to get around the edge but also the power to walk tackles back into the quarterback. Because of this, tackles know they have to get out of their stance quick if they want to survive.
On Sunday, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who is widely regarded as one of the better right tackles in the league, was called for a false start twice in this matchup. On both plays, Schwartz was trying to get into his kick-slide quickly so he could anchor against Lawrence’s power. You’ll also notice on both plays below, the running back was on the right side of the formation to help Schwartz protect the edge. Neither of these plays went down in the stat column for Lawrence, but his reputation and production this season had an obvious impact.
As for his pure pass-rushing ability, no one in the league is using their hands better than Lawrence. We’ve already mentioned that he has power and speed, but his technique has improved so much in his fourth season that he now doesn’t have a weakness in his game. When team’s try to force him to win with something other than speed, he now has a slew of other options to get to the quarterback.
Below is a perfect example of Lawrence using hand technique to win, rather than his raw athleticism. The Chiefs kept Kareem Hunt in on this play once again to protect the edge, but Lawrence waited and swatted away the right tackles’ hands for an easy hit on the quarterback. The pressure here didn’t lead to a sack, but it forced Alex Smith to get rid of the ball a moment before he was ready too. Lawrence’s patience and power in his hands allowed him to record the pressure here.
When Lawrence wasn’t getting to the quarterback, he was often occupying two blockers. On this screen pass, the Chiefs were so concerned about him blowing up the play that they put their fullback on the field to chip him. That’s when you know that you have a dominant rusher when teams are game-planning on stopping you on a screen pass.
Aside from just producing in the passing game this season, Lawrence has drastically improved as a run defender. Part of that could be due to the fact that he’s finally healthy again. It’s not rocket science, but when a player is healthy, they are likely to give more effort.
That effort from Lawrence is easy to see. Throughout the game on Sunday, Lawrence was stretching out run plays, beating multiple blockers and attacking ball carriers on every snap. The play below is a perfect example of him showing off his motor to make a beautiful tackle on Kareem Hunt behind the line of scrimmage.
Lawrence finished the first half of the season with 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. But Sunday, it was his first game of the year in which he did not record a sack. But as you can see from above, he was still a force in this game. Sacks will always matter, but they certainly aren’t the end-all, be-all for pass rushers. There are just so many other ways a player can produce than just recording sacks.
As long as Lawrence (and his teammate David Irving) can stay healthy, Dallas should have one of the better pass rushes in the NFL. At just the age 25, Lawrence is in for a big payday in the offseason. But as of now, he’s a key part of the Cowboys’ defense and his play over the next few months will help decide whether this team can make the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time since 2006-2007.