A precipitous drop in production from a player in the prime of his career usually has to do with an outside influence. Typically, a player doesn’t forget what it takes to be successful in the NFL. The reality is that NFL players, like any other person, aren’t static entities.
Just like your work performance at the office hinges on myriad factors in your personal and professional lives, an NFL player’s performance can ebb and flow based on a bunch of different components that the typical NFL fan cannot see.
Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is currently not playing up to his own standards. At first, Lawrence’s struggles were credited to the fact that he missed the first four games of the season because of a suspension. However, after seven appearances, that excuse is no longer viable. Something is up with the Cowboys’ best pass rusher from a year ago.
Coming into this season, the New Ellington, South Carolina native was supposed to take the next step in his development. He finished last year with seven sacks in the last eight games, and it looked like 2016 would be the year that he broke the double-digit threshold. The Cowboys were counting on him to be their premier pass-rusher. So much so that they didn’t even bring in much help to a poor pass rush from the year prior. However, an offseason back injury and subsequent suspension robbed Lawrence of the ability to have a real offseason.
Before we get into the technical mistakes Lawrence is making, it is important that we discuss the physical changes with Lawrence.
First, Lawrence’s back injury appears to have hampered his explosiveness and quickness. Lawrence has struggled to really stress an offensive tackle’s pass set, and unless he times the snap perfectly, he has no chance with a pure speed rush to the outside. Furthermore, Lawrence’s seems to have lost the stop-start quickness that would allow him to counter a mistake from an offensive tackle.
On top of that, Lawrence looks to be carrying some extra weight as his perpetual attempts to get bulkier appear to have come back to bite him. This appears to have affected Lawrence’s conditioning, which in turn hampers his ability to react quickly. The more fatigued someone gets, the longer it takes for their muscles to respond to what the brain tells them to do.
Without the practice time to refine his technique or get into game shape, Lawrence has seen a big drop in his pass rush productivity. The biggest place you can see Lawrence’s new physical limitations is when he tries to win with speed to the outside. This play is a great illustration of just that (Lawrence is No. 90):
The biggest place you can see the 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end’s new physical limitations is when he tries to win with speed to the outside. This play is a great illustration of just that (Lawrence is No. 90):
Here, the third-year defensive end looks to execute an outside speed rush with possibly a counter spin; however, you can see how physically limited he is. Despite causing the offensive tackle to open the gate (open his hips perpendicular to the line of scrimmage instead of staying parallel), Lawrence doesn’t have the upfield burst, flexibility or quickness to take advantage of the myriad openings available to him.
A team’s No. 1 pass-rusher has to take advantage of these opportunities. However, the Boise State product has not been able to do so.
Another reason why Lawrence has struggled is that he’s lacked patience with his pass rushes. Here is an example (Lawrence is No. 90):
While patience isn’t among the buzzwords that you’ll typically hear in regards to a pass-rusher, it is still extremely important. The timing of a pass rusher’s hands can be as important as any other stage of the pass rush. On this play, Lawrence’s lack of patience costs him.
The 24-year old pass-rusher gets a good job on the snap, and he is able to stress the width of the offensive tackle’s set, which puts him on even more of an island. Now, as he attempts to get around the edge and to the QB, he should be patient and wait to counter the left tackle’s punch. This would allow him to really capture the edge and flatten to the QB. Instead, Lawrence gets too eager and utilizes his club too early. When he misses, it costs him his balance and eye level which take him out of the play.
Ultimately, when a player is struggling, they tend to press in an attempt to get productivity. This usually does more harm than good as players typically tend to cut corners with their technique when they press (like on this play). When Lawrence doesn’t properly set up his pass rush moves, it is a sign that he is pressing too much.
The single biggest weakness on the entire Cowboys roster is their lack of pass rush, and Lawrence is a responsible for a great deal of that. As Lawrence continues to fight through his back injury, it doesn’t look like there is a solution to the physical issues plaguing the former second-round pick until after the season is over; however, if he can get more patient and stop pressing, he can be an above-average threat off the edge.
When Lawrence was selected in 2015, the Cowboys’ assistant director of player personnel, Will McClay, stated that he was a “QB hunter.” Three months into the NFL season and Lawrence has been anything but that, and it may come back to bite the Cowboys when it matters most.