Buffalo Bills first round pick Shaq Lawson isn’t breaking the NFL’s Shaq barrier, and he’s barely broken into Buffalo’s lineup. Like Robert Nkemdiche for the Arizona Cardinals, Lawson started his professional experience with the disappointment of injury, missing the first six games of the Bills’ campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery in May. Unlike Nkemdiche, Lawson never lost the support of his coach and now that he’s healthy has already made an impact on the field—and he’ll get a much more prominent chance to showcase himself Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks.
Even though Lawson wasn’t able to join his teammates in full training camp practices, Rex Ryan praised Lawson’s work ethic in August, for rehabilitating his repaired shoulder on his own and staying in shape during the summer. Ryan was a Clemson Tigers supporter during their run to the College Football Playoff final because his son Seth was a wide receiver there, so he claimed a connection to Lawson even before the draft. And Ryan has demonstrated his faith in the prospect he made the third pass-rushing outside linebacker selected in April by ramping up his play time in the weeks since Lawson returned to action.
He was minimally useful in his debut against the Miami Dolphins in just 14 snaps two weeks ago, but then October 30 Lawson picked up his first career sack and bumped his workload up to 36 downs facing the New England Patriots—more than half Buffalo’s defensive snaps.
On that sack in the fourth quarter, Lawson zips his 270-pound body around left tackle Nate Solder so quickly he looks like a goldfish spinning around his bowl. When Solder sees he’s beat he tries to dive to cut Lawson’s legs, but the rookie never loses his balance and crumple’s Tom Brady for the five-yard loss. It’s one of the easiest sacks you’ll ever see.
That nimbleness is what allows Lawson to play more snaps in the Bills’ 3-4 scheme, which asks him often to cover pass receivers when he’s not keyed on the rush. But Lawson’s delayed curve has still sapped him of reps to read run, or that’s how it appeared on the following down when he ended up sucked into the flat by the tight end’s dummy release instead of crashing the edge and it yielded an eight-yard gain for New England. Lawson’s closing speed then cost Buffalo a first down when he hit Brady too late after forcing a deep overthrow on third and seven.
So it was an uneven series despite the headlining statistic. But watch Lawson put those same attributes on display in the second quarter when he buzzes the flat on another deep Brady attempt:
Lawson quickly recognizes when no receivers are left in his zone and follows his read directly to the quarterback. It doesn’t result in sack but this time he influences the throw while managing to avoid a roughness penalty. Either way it’s the decision-making and the incredible speed for such a big man that shows promise for Lawson’s future. See how he closes 15 yards in one second? That’s sprinter’s speed.
Lawson has been luckier than Nkemdiche to be a first-round pick joining a squad with less depth directly in front of him, but was also given his expanded opportunity Sunday thanks to a bit of personal fortune at the expense of his teammate Lorenzo Alexander. When I spoke with Drew Gier of Buffalo’s Rock Pile Report on Wednesday, I asked if Lawson will continue to see his playing time increase or if the Bills will keep using him in a situational role. Gier countered that with Alexander possibly sidelined with a strained hamstring that kept him out of the second half against the Patriots, it’s possible Lawson might see starter’s reps against Seattle.
Alexander is the NFL leader in sacks and was just named Cliff Avril’s interconference counterpart as October’s AFC defensive player of the month, so Buffalo will miss Alexander’s activity if he doesn’t get to feast against George Fant Monday. But Lawson presents another kind of threat, and proved on the very next snap after Alexander got hurt last week that he can help generate sacks without getting directly to the quarterback himself. Here Kyle Williams gets to swallow up Brady mainly because Lawson’s stunt inside abruptly causes New England’s left guard Joe Thuney to abandon his double team with Solder, allowing Williams to wedge his way through the shoulder where Solder expects help:
Yikes. As if the Seahawks offense didn’t have enough to worry about, here comes the Shaq attack.