Last December, I wrote about my admiration for Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and his impeccable technique in my Week 13 Hoss of the Week column. I just love to watch his film because Lawrence is one of the most complete 4-3 defensive ends playing the game right now. It is truly a shame his name doesn’t come up more often in national media discussions about the best defensive linemen in the league.
But that’s OK, because if he continues to play like he has the last few year it will impossible to keep ignoring him.
Oh, yeah — Hey, Dallas Cowboys: pay the man!
What might impress me the most about how Lawrence plays the game is the fact he gets everything out of his athletic ability by doing all the little things right with his feet and his hands, play after play after play. Just like every other part of his game, his effort is consistently outstanding. He is relentless, but he still manages to play under control and with forethought. And play at a very high level at that.
It’s not like he’s some genetic freak, either. Lawrence is relatively average height for the position at 6’3, and he’s listed at 265 pounds, which is also relatively light for a defensive end. But none of that matters between the white lines on Sundays because Lawrence has that almighty equalizer on the football field: exquisite technique.
Another Hoss-worthy performance, right when the Cowboys needed it
Sunday, in a much needed win over the Lions, that exquisite technique was on full display. If you watched the game on TV (or highlights on RedZone like me) you probably noticed Lawrence taking Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford down three times during the game. But did you pay close attention to how he managed to get to the quarterback on those plays?
I did, and I’m going to walk you through two of those sacks, plus a bonus play where Lawrence’s technique helped to spring his teammate for what it turns out was a very important pressure on Stafford.
If you keep watching Lawrence and reading my analysis of his play, I’m pretty sure you will become a fan of his play just like me.
Three steps and a cha, cha, cha
Lawrence notched his first sack of the game near the end of the second quarter, and, it turns out, that was a pretty important play, too.
With 1:13 left in the first half, the Lions had a first-and-10 at their own 45-yard line, looking to at least get into field-goal range in the time they had left. Lawrence was lined up at his usual left defensive end spot with his teammate, Tyrone Crawford, lined up inside of him as the three-technique.
Lawrence and Crawford decided to run a TEX game against Lions right tackle Ricky Wagner and right guard Kenny Wiggins. For that, the pass rusher in the B gap works as the penetrator and ultimately has a contain rush, while the edge rusher gets upfield then loops inside, generally to the A gap.
How it’s supposed to work
I hadn’t thought about this for years, but when I saw Lawrence run that game it jogged my memory of my old defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who happens to be the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, coaching up us defensive ends on running that game back in the day.
It’s important for the edge rusher to get up the field far enough to attract the tackle’s attention so that the three-technique can get upfield in the B gap and get to that tackle’s back. They also have to be careful not to get so far upfield that they end up running past the level of the quarterback which could open up a huge escape lane for him to step into.
The “proper” footwork on a TEX for the edge rusher in a stance with their outside hand down, as taught to us, was to take three steps upfield and step inside behind the three-technique on that third step. That should allow them to push off to get inside with their outside foot.
However, for a player with their inside hand down — like Lawrence usually is and was on that play — the proper footwork is three steps up field and then “cha, cha, cha”. That meant you take the three steps upfield, then chop your feet like a stutter step until you step inside with your inside foot while pushing inside with your outside foot in order to loop behind the three-technique. When a player has his inside hand down, that means his inside foot is also back and they should take their first step with their inside foot.
So for someone with their inside hand down, their third step would be with their inside foot, but trying to loop inside off your inside foot is simply no good. But taking four steps upfield was also no good because then you run the risk of opening up that escape lane for the quarterback. But three steps and a stutter step was just right, as Goldilocks would say.
And that’s exactly what Lawrence did on that play.
Lawrence did the three steps and a “cha, cha, cha” which kept Wagner’s attention long enough for Crawford to get upfield in the B gap.
And what actually happened
However, Crawford ran his part of the TEX game let’s just say differently from how we used to have our three-technique run it. Crawford went hard at Wiggins with a bullrush for two steps, then turned outside to try to bullrush the inside half of Wagner.
The problem, as I see it, with doing it that way is that Crawford allowed Wiggins’s punch in response to Crawford’s bull rush, to push him all the way across Wagner’s face.
As I’ve said before, my philosophy is that when you run pass rush games they’re meant to either give defensive linemen a two-on-one advantage when the center slides in the opposite direction, or for the pass rushers to even things up if the center slides to them. The whole point would be to totally eliminate at least one of the blockers from the scenario every single time I run one.
The center did slide away from Lawrence and Crawford. Had Crawford been able to stay in the B gap and get to Wagner’s back, he and Lawrence could have been looking at a two-on-one situation with Wiggins, where no matter who the guard picked to block, he would have been wrong.
But because of how Crawford ran it, both he and Lawrence would still have to beat the tackle and right guard one-on-one, with Wiggins momentarily in good position to block Lawrence as he looped inside after he had already punched Crawford wide.
Yeah, he thought!
Some cats who have lazy technique would have either run right down the middle of Wiggins when they saw him standing there. Others would have taken the easy way out and tried to loop inside of Wiggins just so they could tell the coach that technically they did their job.
Lawrence is not your average bear.
As he looped inside, Lawrence had to have seen Wiggins waiting for him. But he also likely noticed that Wiggins had most of his body weight leaning forward, probably trying to brace for a power rush.
Lawrence didn’t try to run into Wiggins at at all. Instead, he took a jab step inside as if he was going to try to loop all the way around Wiggins to the A gap. Lawrence had no such intention. That little half step did what Lawrence needed it to do and got Wiggins to set hard inside with his inside foot to try to guard the A gap. That ended up being mighty unfortunate for Wiggins for two reasons.
First, that just so happened to be exact moment the running back, Theo Riddick, decided to check through in that very same A gap right where Wiggins had just stepped down hard inside. Riddick ended up running right into the back of Wiggins’ inside (left) leg. Which didn’t help matters at all because Lawrence was already about to shock Wiggins with a club to his outside shoulder.
The combination of Lawrence throwing a haymaker of a club and Riddick damn near buckling Wiggins’ inside leg left Wiggins crumpling forward to the turf. Lawrence had already slipped by him and accelerated toward his prey.
Stafford tried to wait as long as he could before conceding his fate to Lawrence on that play, and after watching the coaches film I can now see why. If he had just one more second in the pocket, Stafford would’ve had the opportunity to throw to a wide open Marvin Jones about 15 yards downfield with with no Cowboys player within five yards.
But with Lawrence bearing down on him, all Stafford could do was give up the ghost, duck his head, and take the hit. It went down as a loss of nine yards. That sack took the Lions well off schedule for trying to get into field-goal range.
(This is very inside baseball, defensive line wise, but the exact reason why good defensive line coaches make their pass rushers do the “tight bag” drill is so they can make a move in tight quarters effortlessly just like Lawrence did to get that sack.)
The plays that never happen can be the most important ones
Now, the bonus play I mentioned before occurred two plays later on third-and-17 with 18 seconds left in the half. You might not have even noticed it. Or if you did notice it, you probably didn’t think it was much of a big deal. It was the play where Crawford chased Stafford out of the pocket and threw a Hail Mary to nobody.
But how did Crawford get so free like that?
I’m glad you asked!
Crawford and Lawrence ran an EX game That’s where the edge rusher who lines up with their inside hand down takes two steps upfield then comes inside to try to get to the guard’s back. The defensive tackle steps inside to try to get the guard to follow and open up the B gap. Then, when they feel the defensive end making contact with the guard, the defensive tackle loops outside for a contain rush.
On that play, Lawrence stayed low. That helped to make the pass rushing game successful.
Detroit wide receiver T.J. Jones was lined up a hair outside of Lawrence in a tight split, and, on the snap, Jones slammed down hard to chip Lawrence just as he was taking his second step upfield. Had Lawrence had poor pad level, that blow might have sent him airborne. As it was, Lawrence was able to keep his feet and maintain his trajectory right at Wiggins’ inside shoulder just long enough to go flying into Wiggins’ legs as he finally succumbed to gravity’s pull.
Because Wagner was stepping down hard with Lawrence’s inside move and Wiggins unable to move because of Lawrence flying right into his legs, Crawford looped around with absolutely no interference from any blocker. Stafford made the prudent decision to vacate the pocket while the vacating was still good.
Which was a very good thing for the Cowboys, because had Stafford actually had time to set his feet and throw the football down the field, he might have completed a pass to Kenny Golladay, who ran a post that looked to be open on that play. Stafford had a great chance to get Detroit set up in field-goal range with just enough time left to kick one. Lawrence shut all that ish down, though.
Sometimes its the plays that you insure never happen that turn out to be the most important plays of the game.
Some good-ass barbecue chicken
Later on, with a little more than half of the third quarter gone, the Lions had a third-and-4 at their own 18-yard line. Detroit’s defense just stood up after allowing the Cowboys to move all the way down to the field to Lions’ 26-yard line on the opening drive of the second half. A sack on third-and-18 pushed Dallas out of field-goal range and forced them to punt.
Down 10-13 at the time, the Lions really needed to get something going on their own offensive drive to at least help flip the field position so that Dallas wouldn’t get a short field if and when the Lions punted.
Detroit came out in an empty set, which meant there wasn’t anybody to help chip on the edge. In response, the Cowboys had their middle linebacker, Jaylon Smith, come on a delayed blitz which meant they were rushing five guys against five offensive linemen.
It also meant the Lions offensive linemen couldn’t help each other out.
And that meant, you guessed it, Wagner had to block Lawrence one-on-one.
Anybody ever tasted some good-ass barbecue chicken? Delicious ain’t it?
Lawrence took two hard steps up the field on the snap of the football. Then he pushed off with his outside foot and stepped hard inside with his inside foot as if he was going to try to rush in the B gap. Wagner didn’t really step down hard inside, but he did keep moving backwards with his kick step. As Lawrence went to step back outside with his outside foot, Wagner tried to shoot his punch in Lawrence’s chest.
As soon as he saw Wagner’s outside hand coming toward him, Lawrence took his inside hand and chopped down hard on Wagner’s forearm. Almost simultaneously, Lawrence used his outside hand to club Wagner’s arm above the elbow to make sure that Wagner could not stick his arm back up and try to catch up with Lawrence again. His rip was the finishing piece to this marvelous move, and it allowed Lawrence to completely free himself of Wagner’s clutches.
In the meantime, Stafford decided to try to step up in the pocket to avoid the edge rushers, but the blitzing Smith got a good push on Lions’ center Graham Glasgow. Stafford ended up bumping into the both of them, and that bump knocked Stafford off balance and right back into the waiting arms of Lawrence for a six-yard loss.
The shame of it all for Lions fans is, once again. Stafford had a receiver coming open, Theo Riddick, who ran a late shallow crosser that was wide open for the first down.
If only Stafford had the time ...
I freely admit I get a kick out of watching DeMarcus Lawrence play football, and it’s an added bonus when I get to write about it.
With three sacks, a tackle for a loss, and four other tackles on Sunday, Lawrence did just enough to edge out several other worthy contenders to earn my Hoss of the Week award for Week 4 of the 2018 NFL season. Hopefully, as he continues to put up sack numbers, more folks will start to put some some respect on his name.
Including the Cowboys.