Rex Ryan doesn’t conceal much, and he was as transparent as could be regarding his feelings about Manny Lawson missing the early portion of the Buffalo Bills’ offseason workouts.
“I was mad at Manny, because he showed up for one day and took a lot of things off,” the coach said.
Yes, the “things” the Bills have been doing for the past couple of months have been voluntary for the players. Nevertheless, Ryan and the rest of the Bills’ new coaching staff are implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball.
The changes on defense are the most dramatic, because they involve plenty of pre-snap shifting and other assignment variations. For Lawson, a full-time end last season, it means spending more time at linebacker, sometimes outside and sometimes inside. It also means a whole lot of communicating on the field with the rest of the front seven and, at times, the secondary to make certain that everyone is on the same page on each snap.
Knowing how much there was for Lawson to handle mentally, Ryan was concerned that his absence from workouts would hurt him and the rest of the defense and the entire team. Despite being well aware of Lawson’s extensive experience as a 10th-year NFL veteran, Ryan worried about him falling behind.
“But when we started the OTAs, he came back and I said, ‘Woof! The guy’s impressive,’” Ryan said Wednesday, after the Bills’ next-to-last scheduled OTA session. “Now, it shouldn’t surprise me. I think his test score coming out” of North Carolina State before the San Francisco 49ers made him a first-round draft pick in 2006 “was the second-highest that I can remember for a defensive player next to Eric Smith, who’s one of our coaches now,” working as a special teams assistant. “He’s really a sharp guy.
“Coming in and knowing, not just his assignments, but how the defense works” was impressive. “And talking it up, making sure he’s pulling defensive linemen over in different fronts, talking to the ’backers, so he’s been really impressive that way.”
“And, obviously,” at 6-foot-5, “he’s got the height and the length that you look for, so I’m really pleased with him.”
Lawson is equally pleased with his new role, which is somewhat similar to the one he filled in 2013, when the Bills’ defense was run by Ryan coaching disciple Mike Pettine. Lawson started at linebacker in all of the 15 games he played that year. In 2014, he didn’t make a single start, spending the season as one of the backups to ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.
During OTA practices, Lawson is a regular part of the starting defense. With Williams at outside linebacker and Hughes still at end, Lawson joins Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown in the linebacking corps, although sometimes he is back to being an end. Although contact isn’t allowed until training camp begins on July 31, Lawson has gotten a good feel for how often he’ll be in the thick of the action.
He describes his new capacity as “a broader or wider spectrum of my linebacker role” from two seasons ago. He also sees his versatility as going a long way toward helping to extend his NFL career.
“Man, I’m liking it a lot,” said Lawson, who joined the Bills as a free agent in 2013 after two seasons in Cincinnati. “I think it really utilizes my talents and it’s just a fun position to play.”
What does he like best about it?
“Really, that I can just run around and create chaos,” Lawson said. “I hit pretty much anything that moves and I have different responsibilities from rushing to dropping into man coverage. You never know what position or what our responsibility is.”
One constant, though, is communication. Lawson excels there because besides his natural intelligence, he also puts in the necessary time to study the game plan.
Even when he wasn’t participating in the earlier portion of offseason workouts, Lawson was very much up to speed on the complexities of the Bills’ new defense.
“The way that we look at it and the way I look at it is a loud defense is a good defense,” he said. “And everybody talks. If you talk about your assignment, if you know your checks, if you know what to expect, what might come through a motion or shift, that helps everybody on the defensive front. It’s from the guys on the back end to the guys on the front end, and just all communicating and everybody playing at once on defense.
“If it’s a coverage, I may be speaking to the guys behind me, to my safeties, letting them know what I’m doing. Or just telling them what I expect them to do or a simple confirmation, even. Is this the right check? So if I make an incorrect check, then somebody makes the check behind me, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the check we’re supposed to make.’ That’s where communication comes into play.”
With exceptional pass-rushers such as Williams and Hughes, and the dominant interior defensive line duo of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, Lawson usually finds himself with minimal resistance between himself and the quarterback.
In one respect, their considerable talent and production help make his job “tremendously easy.” But in another, they also put a great deal of pressure on him.
“We have a tremendous front and I look forward to the time that I get to go with those guys, because I can pretty much assure that they’re all going to be double teamed, which means I’m pretty much free,” Lawson said. “So I just can’t drop the ball. I just can’t miss the layup. When it’s there, I’ve got to make sure I get to the quarterback and get him down. I just don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, man, he was free,’ and then I have them just joking and kidding me for the next three years. I can’t have that.”
He didn’t like having his coach mad at him, either, but so far he seems to be weathering that just fine.