The contributions of Lawson and Hughes in their first seasons on Buffalo’s defensive unit have been frequent and significant. In fact, they’re two of the best in the league at what they do.
Lawson after signing with Buffalo: "I am coming here to change things"
According to ProFootballFocus, Manny Lawson ranks eighth and Jerry Hughes ranks 15th among outside linebackers in the league. Only three other teams have two outside linebackers in the top 15, and they come from some of the best defenses in the league at Baltimore, Kansas City and San Francisco.
Hughes has appeared to finally develop into the pass rusher that made him a first-round pick back in 2010. Lawson meanwhile has been solid at setting the edge against the run and better than expected in pass coverage.
“I think Jerry has given us a lot with the pass rush,” head coach Doug Marrone said. “I think he’s very quick, very fast. He’s a guy you’ve got to watch and study on film. It’s not like, ‘Hey I’m going against Jerry Hughes I’ll be fine and not have to pick it up.’”
“I think Manny has done extremely well playing the edges, forcing it and really making a lot of plays in the run whereas I think in the past people have wondered if he’s strong enough and can hold the point (of attack) so that’s worked extremely well for us,” Marrone added.
Having played a starting role in most of his other seven seasons, Lawson took a different approach to a new opportunity.
Lawson said his focus coming into Buffalo was, “not necessarily being a vocal leader, but more so letting my actions speak louder than my words.”
His approach might explain why he’s frequently under the radar -- he always completes his assignment. He’s got a sack to his name, along with three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. More impressively, he is third on the team in tackles and tackles for a loss. He’s recorded 27 tackles and 11 assists.
Fueling his successes, Lawson said isn’t strength alone.
“I doubt it’s physical besides being blessed with long arms,” he said. “If I can get my arms on you pretty much before you can me, it’s hard for you to block me.”
Arriving at Buffalo was an easy transition, and after learning the playbook, Lawson said he was golden.
“It’s not necessarily me fitting into the scheme as much as coach Pettine forming the scheme around his players,” he said. “He comes in saying he’s going to make a defense around the players he has on the field. I fit in because he’s made a certain package able for me to fit in.”
Hughes said much of the same about his acceptance in Buffalo’s defense.
“(Coach Pettine) does a great job of highlighting everybody’s strengths,” Hughes said. “He knows what we can do.”
Although he was a backup during his first seasons in Indianapolis, he learned the NFL game from watching Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney at the Colts.
“When the opportunity came for me to spark up some more playing time in Buffalo, I just planned on taking full advantage of that,” Hughes said.
In just the first six weeks of the season, he’s already eclipsed a third of his production with the Colts. To his name are 13 tackles and 10 assists. He’s been a nightmare for quarterbacks, racking up a pass deflection, three sacks, three quarterback hits and 15 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.
He said he credits his success to his “speed and relentlessness to get after the ball carrier. To force the ball out, force turnovers.” He also credits two of his former coaches, who helped him patent his effective spin move which lets him leave offensive tackles behind to get at the quarterback.
Together, he and Lawson agreed they complement each other very well in their ability to stop any play they put their mind to.
“We talk just about as much as anybody on the field,” Hughes said. “I let him know what I see, he lets me know what he sees. If he’s able to pick up on anything communication-wise or formation-wise. We’re trying to communicate the most on the sidelines so we can hit the field and play fast.”
Of course that communication goes beyond the two outside linebackers.
“I feel like we all feed off each other greatly, no matter who’s out there,” Hughes said. “We kind of just get after the quarterback. It’s been working, so we continue to feed off each other’s energy.”
Lawson is well aware that despite their production on defense their record is 2-4. There are still aspects of their game that need to be improved. But the veteran linebacker doesn’t feel they’re far off.
“In here all we preach is we’ve got to stay focused. Sooner or later it’s going to click,” he said. “We have the tools on the offense, special teams and defense to just make things happen, and games have proven it.
“We just have to win those close games. When all three phases click together and we see just how jelled we are, and we see just how simple the game is, it’s going to be smooth sailing.”