What Should the Buffalo Bills Expect out of Linebacker Manny Lawson?

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IMarch 20, 2013

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 2: Manny Lawson #99 of the Cincinnati Bengals prepares to enter the field against the San Diego Chargers on December 2, 2012 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The free-agency excitement hasn't stopped since Tuesday.

That is, unless you're a fan of the Buffalo Bills. Then it stopped on Tuesday.

The Bills' lone signing, linebacker Manny Lawson, didn't exactly send shock waves through the NFL. Part of that can be notched up to Lawson having played in Cincinnati before making the trek to Western New York.

Lawson was once a first-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers, but he slowly fell out of favor as the team went through one coaching change after another. He started all 16 games in his final two seasons with the team, but his role decreased. Since joining the Bengals, he has played all 32 games and started 25, but his role has continued to diminish.

Still, there is some evidence that Lawson can contribute.

Experience Rushing the Passer

The first thing that jumps out between Lawson's time in San Francisco and Cincinnati is his role as a pass-rusher. 

He rushed the passer nearly twice as often as he dropped into coverage in 2009, and he rushed the passer 22 percent more frequently than he dropped into coverage in 2010. After all that, he was only sent after the quarterback 78 times combined in 2011 and 2012.

He wasn't necessarily less effective, though. He created pressure (hurry, hit or sack) on 69 plays (12.7 percent of his rushes) with the 49ers from 2009 to 2010, and 13 (16.7 percent) with the Bengals the past two years.

He logged a sack of Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert in Week 4, and in so doing, he showed the speed and instincts that make him a good pass-rusher.

He had a little help from a pre-snap alignment that gave him a free rush lane, but it wasn't a flat-out sprint to the quarterback. He had to weave through some traffic, including blocks from a running back and a pulling left guard. 

He does not bend well when rushing, either, as we see on his sack of Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer.

There's no move hereit's just a flat-out speed rush around the edge.

He is able to beat his assignment to the corner and gets around it, blindsiding Palmer and stripping the football.

He will have some opportunities to rush the passer, but that will not be his primary role.

Below-Average Dropping into Coverage

The Bills signed him to play strong-side outside linebacker, which means he'll be dropping into coverage against tight ends and will be responsible for running backs out of the backfield.

He doesn't have great ball skills (two career interceptions), but he hasn't allowed a single touchdown thrown into his coverage over the past two seasons, when he's been playing noticeably more often in coverage than ever before.

Even despite all that, he's considered a liability in coverage. He has been targeted regularly (averaged 5.5 cover snaps per target in 2012), and quarterbacks had their way throwing into his coverage (83.3 completion percentage allowed).

He doesn't move well laterally, which can be taken advantage of when he's in coverage. Antonio Gates is obviously one of the best tight ends of all time, but at 32 years old, he's no longer the elite tight end he was just a few years ago.

He wouldn't beat many of today's coverage-oriented linebackers in a footrace, but he made easy work of Lawson running a simple pivot route toward the left sideline.

Lawson's stiffness is what gets him in trouble, as he's unable to counter the quick cut by Gates with the appropriate agility to stay close in coverage.

That makes for an easy pitch-and-catch from quarterback Philip Rivers, who simply leads Gates into the throw and picks up nine yards. 

Teams know that he doesn't move well in space. That makes him an easy target on routes such as this one, and it's also part of the reason why he had just one pass breakup in 2012. The Bills need to be cognizant of that as they plug him into their defensive scheme.

At His Best Against the Run

Lawson is as solid a run defender as the Bills could have found on the open market, with just eight missed tackles over the past two years.

It's not his strength that serves him well against the run. It's his speed that gets him by.

Against the Eagles, Bryce Brown took a handoff off left tackle and went through the C-gap, where it appeared he'd have a clear lane.

Manny Lawson made a quick turnaround, though, and chased Brown down before he could burst through the hole, stopping the run for just a two-yard gain.

His speed allowed him to recover there, and although you'd rather not see a player lose gap integrity as quickly as Lawson nearly did, gap discipline is not one of the key components to Mike Pettine's defense. It's all about penetration.


As we've seen in the snapshots of the plays above, he's capable of lining up all over the field: close to the line of scrimmage, off the line of scrimmage, in tight to the defensive end, lined up wide, etc.

Since the Bills will be running a hybrid defense with the nickel package serving as the base front, it will be important to have players who are versatile between the 3-4 and the 4-3, and/or between odd and even alignments.

Lawson is probably not the key to a complete defensive turnaround, but he could certainly contribute given the circumstances and his experience.

Advanced statistics courtesy ProFootballFocus.com

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.comFollow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. 


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