Buffalo's new defensive system under head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman is far from completely new. The Bills defense ran a similar version of the scheme just two years ago under former Ryan colleague Mike Pettine (head coach Cleveland). While a lot of the roles on that side of the ball won't see much deviation from even the 2014 scheme, there is one player who recent history suggests will benefit greatly.
Manny Lawson is entering his 10th NFL season this fall. Set to turn 31-years old just before training camp, Lawson looked to be in tip-top shape as OTA practices began at One Bills Drive last week. His diligence in taking care of his body has been instrumental in Lawson missing just three games in the last seven seasons.
The wily veteran has always been a team player and his 2014 season was no exception. Lawson saw less than half the snaps in 2014 (349) than he had in 2013 (722). As much as lack of playing time limited his contributions this past year, his responsibilities in Buffalo's defensive scheme might have played an even greater role.
"My role primarily last year was to be that relief body for our two tremendous ends and I didn't mind doing that for those guys," Lawson said. "Those guys are very talented."
It'd be hard to argue that point knowing Mario Williams went to his fourth Pro Bowl last season and Jerry Hughes successfully posted back-to-back 10-sack campaigns. Still, after seeing the kind of impact Lawson could make in 2013 it was hard not to think he was capable of providing more.
Two years ago as a strong side linebacker, Lawson was extremely productive finishing third on the team in tackles (73), third on the team in tackles for loss (10) and fifth in sacks (4). He also finished with 37 stops, a Pro Football Focus metric that counts the number of solo tackles made on plays deemed a failed outcome for the offense. That was good for third-most on the team as well tying Kyle Williams and trailing only Kiko Alonso and Marcell Dareus.
The bulk of Lawson's time on the field two seasons ago was to set the edge in the run game and handle responsibilities in coverage. He only rushed the passer on a little over 100 of his 700-plus snaps.
"I think two years ago I was playing multiple positions and had multiple roles and so you really couldn't focus on exactly where 91 was and you didn't know if I was rushing or I was dropping," said Lawson. "Last year I had someone on me all the time. With a different scheme and different roles opportunities present themselves."
Thus far in OTA practices Lawson has lined up almost exclusively as a strong side linebacker, much like he did in 2013. No longer is he a rotational player on the defensive line to spell Hughes and Williams, which was his role last season.
"Now that those guys can still play in their role and I have my own this is going to be something different," he said.
Different and presumably better.
In 2014, despite rushing the passer twice as often as he did in 2013, Lawson had just a pair of sacks, half of his total from 2013 (4). He managed just 17 tackles with four for loss.
Last season Lawson dropped into coverage just four times compared to his 226 plays of pass coverage assignments in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus. His new role this year, which will mirror what he did two seasons ago, just looks like a better fit.
"I think so. I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying the role that I play," said Lawson. "I get to be pretty much a guy who gets to disguise whatever my role is. If I'm supposed to rush I can show that I'm dropping. If I'm supposed to cover I can show that I'm rushing. It's part of that guessing game that I play with the quarterback."
Based on what he's seen in the meeting rooms and on the practice field Lawson believes his snap count will be back up at a level that he saw a couple of years ago. If that proves to be the case it won't only benefit Lawson, but Buffalo's defensive unit as well.
"I would like that," said Lawson. "This is my home. This is what I like to do. I get to create chaos in the backfield and disrupt passes and disrupt routes and that's what I do best."