Dexter Lawrence: The Heart of the Giants Defense
NFL Divisional - Nobody outside of Minnesota really questioned whether the Vikings were frauds. They ranked 27th in team DVOA by the end of the year and had squeaked by in a ridiculous amount of one-score games, often by some absurd stroke of luck. The ball just kept bouncing right for them all year long. The Giants weren't supposed to be the team to expose them, though. The G-Men are frauds themselves, hobbling through the season with an offense made of papier-mâché and a defense whose already bad back seven has been ravaged by injuries. But then defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said to hell with all of that.
Incomplete as the Giants roster may be, Lawrence was the right man for the moment against the Vikings. The Giants were outmatched dramatically in the back seven, but Lawrence was even more overwhelming versus the Vikings interior. He was a one-man wrecking crew against both the run and the pass. Lawrence's work on the ground made it difficult for the Vikings to manufacture comfortable down-and-distances, and they sort of abandoned the ground game after a certain point because of him. And it was Lawrence's unique pass-rushing ability from the middle that allowed the Giants to sit in two-high shells and put an umbrella over Justin Jefferson for most of the game. It cannot be overstated how effective Lawrence was every time he took the field.
Lawrence was immovable against the run. Even with all the two-high structures the Giants were showing, running back Dalvin Cook still managed just 60 yards on 15 carries, a below-average 4.0 yards per carry. That was largely a product of Lawrence's dominance between the tackles. A handful of Cook's best runs came straight up the middle when Lawrence was taking breathers, too, which only accentuates the impact Lawrence had up front when he was on the field.
This run from the second half is a great example of Lawrence's run defense prowess. In a perfect world for the offense, the center and left guard would combo Lawrence (97) up to the linebacker (Jaylon Smith, 54). The center should get his head across Lawrence and the guard should come off the block to take the linebacker in the B-gap. But Lawrence doesn't let that happen. Lawrence takes the guard head-on and takes control of his torso. He then kickstands and holds his ground, both halting the double team progress and giving the guard zero chance to come off the block to get to Smith. Smith gets to free fit in the gap, which forces the runner back into the teeth of the defense to kill the play. That's how you make life easy for a bad linebacker group.
On this weak zone play, Lawrence doesn't even need the linebackers to clean things up. He handles it all by himself by taking advantage of the center's mistake. Right at the snap, Vikings center Garrett Bradbury bolts out of his stance to get across Lawrence's head. That's technically what you want on a zone play, but Bradbury exaggerates and takes himself a smidgen too wide. Lawrence is still cut off from the strong A-gap, but realizes he doesn't need it. Lawrence fires through Bradbury's inside shoulder to take advantage of Bradbury's wide positioning and poor base. Lawrence effectively closes the strong A-gap by forcing Bradbury into it, giving the runner nowhere to go but right into his waiting arms.
Lawrence held his own against duo, too. On this rep, Lawrence is being double-teamed by the center (Bradbury, 56) and right guard (Ed Ingram, 67). Lawrence engages the center but throws his weight at the right guard, making it difficult for the double team to get vertical push. Once the guard comes off, Lawrence does a great job extending his arms and keeping his eyes in the backfield, a position that allows him to maintain control in the strong A-gap while being able to play the weak A-gap when the time comes. Lawrence's initial gap control forces the runner inside, which prompts Lawrence to cross the center's face and make the tackle for a short gain.
What has made Lawrence so special this season, and in this game, isn't just what he does on the ground, though. He's about as stout as any nose tackle there is in run defense, but as a pass-rusher, he's on a completely different planet from everyone else. According to Next Gen Stats, Lawrence has generated 29 pressures this season (playoffs included) from a 0-technique alignment right over the center. No other player has more than eight. In this game alone, Lawrence had five pressures from a 0-technique alignment. He tacked on three more from other spots, too. 340-pound pass-rushing savants don't really exist, but Lawrence is the exception.
Lawrence is a smart pass-rusher. Explosive and powerful as he may be, he also knows exactly how to manipulate his opponents to make them lose. In this example, Lawrence is in a tilted nose alignment over the center. Bradbury pops up and immediately moves towards Lawrence's side and tries to square up on him. Lawrence uses Bradbury's momentum against him, tossing him to the direction his body is already taking him. That move opens up the A-gap for Lawrence. The left guard is quick to realize Lawrence is winning and tries to help, but Lawrence makes the savvy move of turning his shoulders to get "skinny" (as much as a 340-pound man can). Lawrence halfway muscles his way through the gap before Bradbury commits a holding penalty to wrestle him to the ground, a frantic effort that still resulted in a pressure and disrupted throwing platform.
Lawrence's raw power sure does come in handy, though. That was especially true late in the fourth quarter when Lawrence really stepped up as a baseball-style closer for the Giants defense. In this example, Lawrence is the masher for a defensive tackle twist. Lawrence bangs the unsuspecting right guard with such force that he's knocked a half-gap over, prying the lane wide-open to barrel at the quarterback and force a throwaway. That kind of burst off the snap and power upon collision is a nasty combination of traits.
Lawrence went full Mariano Rivera on the final play of the game. There are plenty of jokes to be made about Kirk Cousins checking down on fourth-and-8 with the game on the line, but Lawrence sure helped Cousins make that decision quickly. Lawrence's flexibility for a big man is what makes this play. Lawrence starts his path trying to fight across the left guard's face to the outside, but seamlessly transitions to an inside path once the guard takes himself too wide. Lawrence never stops gaining ground, nor does he lose any power upon turning himself inside. Moving that fluidly, with that power and length, at 340 pounds just feels unfair, and left guard Ezra Cleveland would probably agree.
On a defense led by its front-four talent, Lawrence is head-and-shoulders above his peers. He is their leader, the heart that pumps life into the rest of the unit. Lawrence's ability to both make plays by himself and create opportunities for others, against the run and the pass, is a level of impact that only a handful of other defensive tackles can match.
The Giants need Lawrence to have that kind of game against the Eagles if they want to stand a chance. Philadelphia's offensive line is considerably better than Minnesota's top to bottom, but center Jason Kelce does struggle with bigger, stronger defensive tackles at times.