In Week 1 Bills head coach Rex Ryan knew he would be without the services of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who was serving a one game league-imposed suspension. Facing Andrew Luck and a potent Colts offense, Ryan felt he had to throw a wrench into the Indianapolis passing attack. So he designed a very varied and expansive role for veteran linebacker Manny Lawson just for Week 1.
"With Marcell [Dareus] out we had to kind of create different match ups if you will," said Ryan. "We decided to go with Manny [Lawson] quite a bit. We called it a niner package. We moved him around as a fourth rusher, a dropper, something like that. Really challenged him mentally and he did a great job of it."
Lawson was only on the field for 28 of the defense's 77 plays last Sunday, but he performed well in the multiple roles in which he served. The fact that he was trusted with the added responsibilities resonated with the 10-year veteran.
"From a personal perspective it makes you feel good that the coaches trust you that much to put all that on your plate," Lawson told Buffalobills.com. "In that game you know I want my abilities to be used in whatever way is going to help this team."
Lawson admitted that he had to be more thorough in his preparation in light of all the different assignments he was tasked with for the Bills season opener. And players in Ryan's scheme do this knowing that everything they prepare for might not always be put into action depending on how things unfold in the game. For Lawson however, that wasn't the case.
"We used all of it," said Lawson of his additional duties last week. "So everything that was asked of me, everything that I had to prepare for was all put into play so you have to be ready for that. Some of it can be used, none of it can be used, all of it can be used. In this case all of it was used."
Knowing how difficult reading Ryan's defensive looks are for opposing quarterbacks, one can imagine the mental acuity needed to execute his assignments in a specialized role such as the one Lawson filled last Sunday. For Lawson the key was differentiation.
"When there are many different roles with many different hats, you have to make sure that you know what role goes with which hat and try to keep those entities separate," he said.
"The good thing about Manny is Manny's one of the sharpest guys I've ever been around," said Ryan. "His Wonderlic score was right up there. You know I would have had to take it twice I think for that score. So that's kind of where he's at."
Lawson scored 43 out of 50 on the Wonderlic, which was the highest in his draft class back in 2006. But it's not just Lawson who brings a strong mind for the game to the field every week. There is a host of players on his side of the ball with strong football acumen.
Realizing the collective level of intelligence he has in his players on the defensive side of the ball, Ryan can maximize his own scheme creativity. That's why he intends to deploy a defender in a special role each and every week if it makes sense for the opponent they're facing.
"I think it will change week to week and who you put that extra load on," said Ryan. "Depending on the opponent you're playing, you know what kind of defense you want to play and things like that. So yeah there will be different guys challenged throughout the year and obviously I'm not going to say who this week."
Knowing the matchup nightmare that Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski can present perhaps there could be a specialized role for Lawson again, or maybe it's Nigel Bradham who can run with most tight ends in the league. Maybe it's even a defender who isn't part of the starting 11 like Duke Williams, who as the team's most physical safety can match up effectively and still run with Gronkowski.
Ryan builds that kind of flexibility into his defensive scheme by teaching his players the entire scheme instead of being position specific. That broad understanding of his defense makes his players more valuable because they can serve in more roles than just their primary position.
"We'll challenge our roster," Ryan said. "We teach the system not just a positon. So a lot of times that can change as well. Like this week you're going play the X, this week you're playing the dime, whatever it is. So we'll do that. We have a smart group. This is a smart team so we're really blessed to have a smart group."
The additional roles energize players knowing they're being relied upon to execute a specialized plan for that given week. And with the breadth of talent on Buffalo's defense surrounding the player designated for a multi-faceted role there is confidence that every part of it will be successfully executed.
"When you have the talent that we have, especially on the defensive side of the ball it makes my job easier in whatever role I may play, whether it's coverage, blitz responsibility, spying, whatever it is," said Lawson. "My role is 10 times easier because of our talent."
The fact that the specialized deployment of Lawson was successful and the result was a victory will only serve to build the confidence of the unit and make other defenders eager to serve in a similar capacity.
"When you have smart players you are able to do a lot of different things and change up your plans week to week," said Ryan. "That is what we need to do, and keep teams guessing so to speak, especially when they play at our stadium with that type of noise. I am not going to say it's impossible, but man it makes it difficult. There is no doubt about it."