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With shoulder healed, Shaq Lawson making quick impact on Bills

Shaq Lawson doesn't remember the exact play. He only remembers the moment.

Falling forward. Sticking out both hands to brace himself. And wondering, just before hitting the turf in Hard Rock Stadium, if his right shoulder would survive its first major encounter with football-style stress since undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum last May.

It did. Not a hint of pain. Not even the smallest indication that what was done in the operating room had suddenly become undone.

"That's when I said, 'Oh, my shoulder's good,'" the rookie outside linebacker says of his thoughts while making his NFL debut during the Bills' Oct. 23 loss against the Miami Dolphins.

Lawson grimaces slightly as he yanks off his shoulder pads after a recent practice. Then, he pulls away a harness from his right shoulder, revealing a nasty scar that runs vertically around the socket.

He can smile as he examines it – yes, he agrees that it is fairly long – because he's happy with how everything worked out. The former Clemson standout became a first-round draft pick in April, got his shoulder fixed, and after about six months of healing and rehabilitating, he's playing again.

And playing well.

In the three games since his return, Lawson has two sacks, among five tackles, and three quarterback hits. His first sack came against none other than Tom Brady in the Oct. 30 loss against New England. His second came against another big name, Russell Wilson, in last Monday night's defeat at Seattle.

"What I was concerned about was how I was going to be able to use it and how I was going to come back to be myself," Lawson says of his shoulder's initial reaction to game contact. "At first, I eased my way, but then I just knew like, my shoulder ain't going to go nowhere."

To make the impact he has made is fairly remarkable, even as the 19th overall pick of the draft.

The Bills' coaches have done their best not to overload Lawson with too much of their thick defensive playbook. However, they've given him enough to where he can make the most of his raw speed, athleticism and instincts as he alternates between standing up and putting a hand on the ground as he did throughout his collegiate career. The Bills' defense is predicated on applying pressure, and, even before Lawson finally entered the lineup, it was doing that far better than in 2015.

With Lawson operating from the right side, his same position at Clemson, the front seven has become that much more effective on the way to generating an NFL-high 30 sacks.

Shaq Lawson posed for pictures during his introduction to Buffalo a day after being drafted. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Shaq Lawson posed for pictures during his introduction to Buffalo a day after being drafted. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

"When you come into this league and you’ve missed OTAs, you’ve missed minicamp, you miss all of training camp, and then you miss almost the first seven games of the season, and you’re a rookie? You are way behind," defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman says. "He’s starting to understand what we’re asking of him. It’s not going to be perfect, because he’s missed so much time, but you can see the talent. You can see his physical gifts.

"He wants to do it. He’s working towards that, and we’re expecting him to grow and get better."

'No pressure at all'

Lawson insists that all of the time he missed hasn't caused him to feel any extra pressure to make his presence felt immediately. He trusted that those who made the decision to draft him in the first round didn't lose faith in his ability as a top-level player.

He maintained patience, believing that, "when the time was right," the plays would come to him.

"I don't feel no pressure at all," Lawson says. "I'm just playing the game of football. I feel like I've been doing this all my life. If I continue to get better throughout the week during practice, it's going to show on Sundays."

Considering that his torn labrum dates back to his freshman season at Clemson, it's fair to say that, physically, the Bills have a better version of Lawson than one who had 20 sacks and 46.5 tackles for loss in his three-year career with the Tigers. He sometimes can't believe how he managed to perform well enough to become a first-round choice.

"I've really been playing the last three years with one shoulder, so to have two shoulders, that feels great," he says. "It sounds crazy, but if you've been in that situation and know you've got two shoulders back, it feels great."

Details matter more

Getting his first sack against Brady, someone he "watched play the game a long time ago," was almost surreal. It wasn't just that it was Brady he brought to the ground. It was that, in only his second pro game, he was able to do that against any NFL quarterback.

As Lawson has quickly learned, Clemson might have one of the best programs in college football, but there is still a significant jump in competition at the next level.

Shaq Lawson hits Tom Brady. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Shaq Lawson hits Tom Brady. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

"Every guy you're going against is the same athlete as you," he says. "In the NFL, everybody's good. You've got guys that's been in the league 14-12 years. The little details of everything you do is different, and it's going to play a bigger role in losing or winning the game or if you get a sack or things like that."

Lawson has quickly found that, unlike college where plays were "easy" to make, the most important work he does is in the meeting room.

Watching video. Paying attention when Thurman and defensive line coach John Blake and outside linebackers coach Jeff Weeks and assistant head coach/defense Rob Ryan speak.

Taking notes. Studying his playbook. Making corrections in practice.

Soaking in the mantra that every member of the front seven hears constantly: "Alignment, assignment, and technique. Regardless of where the offensive tackle lines up, stay true to your responsibility in the defense. Don't go somewhere you're not supposed to be in order to make a play you think you should make. No freelancing."

'The sky's the limit'

Lawson's veteran teammates such as fellow outside linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes, and defensive linemen Kyle Williams and Leger Douzable, take turns giving him advice and helping to keep him dialed in.

"He's grasped the defense pretty well," says Douzable, who sits next to Lawson during meetings. "He's still coming along, he's a rookie. He's going to have his ups and downs, but for a guy that really hasn't played in almost a year, he's played really well.

"The thing that I like about him is that he plays really hard. He chases after the ball every play, and he's always trying to work his countermoves and working established moves while getting to the quarterback. You have to get experience in this league to really know what's going on. You have to get more reps to become better at it. Mostly, he's playing off of instinct. The sky's the limit for the guy."

Think about it. He has not had a full offseason to get his 6-foot-3, 267-pound frame in top football shape. He has not had all of those practices under the August sun at St. John Fisher College to hone his skills and make mistakes. He never wore a uniform until Oct. 23.

"We expect him to grow," Thurman says. "But his upside is tremendous, and he’s an exciting young guy to be working with because he anxious, and sometimes as a young player you want to go faster than the pace you’re ready to go. We’re holding him back some, but he is getting better, yes."

"My mentality is just to continue to get better every day and continue to progress each game," Lawson says. "Do something better than I did last game."

One of the best things he's done so far is fall on his facemask ... and get right back up.

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