The Buffalo Bills’ defense definitely didn’t live up to the expectations that were laid out prior to the season by new Head Coach Rex Ryan, who boldly claimed that he’d field an even better unit than the one Jim Schwartz managed to record over 50 sacks with while ranking in the top 10 of nearly every defensive category. However, Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme is one of the most complex in the National Football League, showing endless exotic fronts and constant pre-snap motion that requires complete synergy and communication by all 11 defenders for the system to work.
We all know about the great success that cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, along with the impact that Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus had during the 2015 season, but the most important role within Rex Ryan’s defense is arguably the strong-side linebacker, or “SAM” position. Over the years, Ryan’s top-ranked defenses have relied on the SAM linebacker—from Jarrett Johnson or Adalius Thomas from his time with the Ravens, to Bryan Thomas or Calvin Pace with the Jets—to serve as a jack-of-all-trades that provided value in all areas of the game.
Manny Lawson- A Movable Chess Piece
In 2015, Manny Lawson was that player for the Buffalo Bills. While his 45 tackle, one sack and one interception stat line for the season doesn’t seem that spectacular, it was what Lawson did beyond the stat sheet to assist his teammates and allow them to make plays around him that was impressive.
Rex Ryan’s defense is often miscast and labeled as a 3-4 but in reality he typically operates out of “Over” or “Under” fronts on base downs that blend concepts from both the traditional two-gap 3-4 system and the modern one-gap 4-3 system.
In Under fronts, the defensive line shifts to the “open” or weak side of the offensive formation and vice versa for an Over front. Essentially, half of the defense looks like a 3-4 front and the other looks like a 4-3.
Rex Ryan regularly used this front with the Jets and Ravens.
The strong-side linebacker is crucial to these hybrid fronts, as the left defensive end is now a two-gap player, meaning that he’s responsible for both the “B” and “C” gaps on either side of the tackle. In an under front, the SAM will typically walk down to the line of scrimmage and serve as a “force defender.”
This player needs to be a unique athlete with a high football IQ, as he needs to be strong enough to routinely set the edge against the run, where he’ll have to hold his ground against reach blocks from tight ends, tackles or fullbacks and force any outside runs to be bounced back inside. He also needs to have the quickness and flexibility to work through and shed those blocks and seal running lanes. Futhermore, the SAM needs to be athletic enough to be effective as a blitzer, as well as dropping into coverage.
Alignment & Technique
The SAM linebacker typically aligns at the seven or nine technique depending on the offensive personnel and formation. If the tight end is in a traditional “Y” position attached to the line of scrimmage, the SAM will play as a nine-technique just outside his outside shoulder right on the line of scrimmage. Below you can see a similar Under front from Rex Ryan’s 2011 Jets team, with the accompanying play diagram from his playbook.
In three-wide situations, the SAM will often be responsible for covering the flexed out tight end or slot receiver, something Manny Lawson did successfully on numerous occasions.
What makes the SAM linebacker position so difficult is that even when he’s split out wide into the slot, Lawson still has the same contain responsibility against the run, so he has to be ready for anything at any time.
The SAM linebacker in Rex Ryan’s defense is essentially an edge player, so he’s typically responsible for the “D” gap, outside of the tight end, or the “C” Gap if there’s no tight end on the line of scrimmage.
In 2015, Manny Lawson played 273 defensive snaps against the run and recorded 27 tackles and 19 “stops” which was good for 12th most out of 32 qualifying linebackers.
In the play below, Manny Lawson is aligned to the right of the defensive formation. Lawson takes on the tight end and doesn’t surrender any ground, using his length to keep the blocker at a distance. The running back is forced to cut back inside, which should result in a tackle for a loss, but a missed tackle allows the Titans to gain a few yards.
Later in the game, Lawson is aligned to the right of the offensive formation. The Titans are in “13” personnel (one running back, three tight ends) and Lawson is at the nine-technique on the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Lawson engages the tight end, overpowering him into the backfield before shedding the block and wrapping up the running back for a loss.
Calvin Pace regularly dominated opposing tight ends in the same role under Rex Ryan with the Jets, sacrificing his own popularity and statistics for his teammates to finish the play.
Here, Lawson shows off his explosiveness and power, as he blows up a lead blocking fullback before recording a tackle for loss.
In the passing game, the SAM linebacker is a wildcard for the defensive coordinator. He can rush the passer, drop into zone coverage or go man-to-man with a tight end or running back. At 31-years old, Manny Lawson doesn’t have the same athleticism he had when he came into the league in 2006, so most of his coverage was a match-zone. This means that he’d drop into a particular zone, but if a receiver entered his area, he was then responsible for picking him up.
According to ProFootballFocus, Manny Lawson played 276 snaps in pass coverage last season, allowing 20 receptions on 22 targets. While that doesn’t sound very good, he allowed just 96 yards (2nd-fewest), 74 yards-after-the-catch (2nd-fewest), held receivers to a 4.8 yards-per-reception average (1st), and opposing quarterbacks posted a mere 65.9 passer rating when targeting him (3rd-best).
Lawson can run the seam with tight ends, but he’d usually try to jam them at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of their route as you can see in the clips below.
When in man coverage, Lawson showed quickness in his change of direction, flipping his hips to stay on the hip of the slot receiver running a slant route. He allows the catch but brings the receiver down immediately for a minimal gain.
If there wasn’t a tight end to his side of the field or it was a 3rd-and-long situation, Manny Lawson was able to pin his ears back and rush the quarterback. Against the Patriots he uses his quick burst, long arms and strength to bull-rush the right tackle into Tom Brady before taking him down for a sack.
Many Bills fans are clamoring for another pass rusher to replace Mario Williams with, assuming that he gets released. While the team could definitely use some depth, if you take a look at all of the dominant defensive units that Rex Ryan has presided over for the last 16 years, they weren’t loaded with multiple 10 sack players. One thing that’s always been a constant is a dominant SAM linebacker that he uses as a moveable chess piece.
Manny Lawson did a fantastic job in that role last year and should keep the starting job heading into next season as well. However, Lawson is entering the final year of his contract and will be 33 years old at the end of the 2016 season, so the team really needs to start looking ahead to find a player to groom under him for the future. It’s a complex position that would be a lot to ask a rookie to come in and start from day one, so finding his eventual replacement sooner than later would be ideal.