Shaq Lawson didn’t expect an interview request this week.
“Y’all want to talk to me?” he asked. “Y’all been hating on me.”
The Buffalo Bills’ second-year defensive end then insisted that he was joking, but there was some truth to what he said. The reality is, Lawson’s performance has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks.
That’s what happens when you’re a first-round draft pick who goes five straight games with a sack, which Lawson did between Week 3 and Week 11.
“It’s been a tough stretch, man,” he said. “We just have to continue to work, continue to get back at it.”
Lawson has 27 tackles and three sacks in nine games this year, missing the Week Four win over Atlanta because of injury. While not where he or the team’s fans want them to be, those numbers are better than what he produced as a rookie. In 10 games last season, he had 13 tackles and two sacks.
“I think he's just developing as an overall player, really,” coach Sean McDermott said. “When you look at it, overall big picture, he didn't play the whole year last year. So when you look at his first year, you say, can you really say that was his first year, or is this first year?
“I've seen this situation before, didn't really play the first year from the start. Coming in the second year, people expect this, and he's still working towards that. The great part is, he's got great attitude, he works hard and he's going to only get better. I'm confident in that.”
Lawson said he feels good physically, and offered a familiar refrain for why the team’s overall sack production is near the bottom of the league. Buffalo’s 15 sacks ranked tied for 29th in the NFL entering a critical Week 12 game at Kansas City on Sunday.
“A lot of quarterbacks are getting the ball out hot,” Lawson said. “When that opportunity comes and the quarterback holds it, we've got to affect the quarterback. Coach preaches that every week. We've been playing good quarterbacks the last couple weeks, and we needed to affect them a lot more than we did.”
Lawson need only look down the defensive line to find a player who has been through a similar situation in his career. Fellow defensive end Jerry Hughes is another former first-round pick who didn’t set the world on fire his first few seasons. Hughes, in fact, had just one sack in his first two seasons.
“I think he's handling it quite well. He's taking it one day at a time,” Hughes said of Lawson’s development. “We all want the sacks. You can ask anybody on the front four. We all want the sacks, but we understand that it's going to come.
"I tell him, in this league, you can have a day like” Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, “and have six in one game. So you never really know, you've just got to keep working on your craft, keep learning. That's what he's been doing. He's after practice, putting in the work. He doesn't mind putting in the extra grind, which is great for a young guy to have that kind of work ethic. He doesn't pay attention to the outside noise.”
Even though it came in a lopsided loss, Lawson did make a big play against the Chargers in Week 11, getting a sack-fumble against quarterback Philip Rivers.
“That was good to see,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “It good to see him turn the corner, finally get to the quarterback. It’s something that we want to see more of in him.”
Frazier has consistently praised Lawson’s run defense, and a look at advanced stats kept by Pro Football Focus backs that up. According to the website, Lawson ranks eighth in the league among 4-3 defensive ends in run-stop percentage, a measure of a tackle that constitutes a “loss” for the offense.
“He’s done a really good job when people do try to run to the rush, try to run to him,” Frazier said. “A lot of runs are more interior than on the edge, but he’s done a pretty good job for us, as far as helping us with the run game. Now, we need to get a little bit more when it comes to rushing the passer. He’s coming in that area; that’s an area that he wants to get better at and we want him to get better at.”
Lawson and Hughes have combined for six of the Bills’ 15 sacks. Frazier, though, said it’s unfair to pin all of the issues in that regard on them.
“It’s a cumulative effort,” he said. “It’s not just the ends. Sometimes it’s a matter of what’s happening on the back end. Sometimes it’s what’s happening with our linebackers and their drops, or are we putting them in enough situations where they have to pass the football, where they’re forced to pass? There are a lot of things that go into it. It’s not always just the two end guys when it comes to pass rushing.”
Right or wrong, though, Lawson knows that his performance will continue to be judged by how many times he takes down the opposing quarterback.
"We’re staying on top of that,” he said. “We have to affect them and bring it every week. When our time comes, when they're not getting the ball out hot, we've got to make that play. We've got to get there and cause pressures. You've just got to continue to work, man, and hopefully a couple plays he holds the ball for you."
In an effort to reverse what has been a disastrous three-week stretch, Frazier played clips this week for the entire defense of their performances earlier in the season.
“It's been a tough three weeks for us – really kind of a nightmare,” Lawson said. “We’re still preaching taking the ball away. It just got away from us. He’s making sure we all stay on the same page as a defense.
“We're going to get back right. Trust me. We're going to get back to the defense we had been playing.”
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was unable to practice again Thursday because of a knee injury. That decreases his chances of being able to play Sunday against the Chiefs.
Also not practicing were left tackle Cordy Glenn (ankle/foot), guard John Miller (ankle) and running back Mike Tolbert (hamstring). Tolbert was downgraded after being a limited participant Wednesday.
Tight end Charles Clay (knee), wide receiver Jordan Matthews (knee), kicker Stephen Hauschka (right hip) and wide receiver Deonte Thompson (ankle) were all limited participants for the second straight practice, while safety Micah Hyde (knee) and wide receiver Andre Holmes (ankle) were again full participants.