When the Dallas Cowboys drafted DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round of last May’s NFL draft, they felt like they were getting a first-round caliber player. But Lawrence hadn’t done much to suggest that the Cowboys had gotten that sort of a value until Sunday’s NFL Wild Card victory over the Detroit Lions.
Lawrence saved his showiest play of this season for the Cowboys’ final defensive snap of Sunday’s game. He bull rushed Lions tackle Riley Reiff and came up on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s blind side to sack the former Highland Park star, force a fumble and then recover the football at midfield with less than a minute left to clinch the Cowboys’ 24-20 victory.
It was Lawrence’s first career NFL sack, regular season or postseason. And it almost didn’t matter.
It nearly didn’t matter because of what happened eight plays earlier. The game should have ended on that play, a second-and-4 at the Lions’ 26-yard line. On this play Anthony Spencer swung off the edge, got to Stafford and forced a fumble.
Lawrence was right there to make the recovery, and, for a brief moment, he had it. And then he lost it. Almost inexplicably. Oddly, Reiff, the player Lawrence would abuse eight plays later, recovered the ball Lawrence gave up.
The atmosphere in AT&T Stadium swung madly in that moment — joyous at one moment and crestfallen the next. It felt like a missed opportunity, much like the vast majority of Lawrence’s season.
The Cowboys desperately needed pass rush help after releasing DeMarcus Ware, the franchise’s all-time sack leader, and seeing Jason Hatcher, last year’s leader in sacks, leave the team in free agency. Drafting Lawrence wasn’t seen as a true replacement for Ware — no player would be, frankly — but the Cowboys envisioned Lawrence as a vital cog in a pass-rush rotation meant to keep a half-dozen defensive ends fresh throughout a game.
That didn’t happen for a while. Lawrence broke his foot during training camp in a drill going against All-Pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith. That led the Cowboys to put Lawrence on short-term injured reserve, where he missed the first nine games before making his NFL debut against the Arizona Cardinals on November 2.
Lawrence hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since he hit the field, but then again, the Cowboys’ pass rush has been tepid all season. In the regular season the only team that had fewer sacks than the Cowboys’ 25 was Oakland, which had 22 sacks.
So Lawrence’s first career sack was well-timed for reasons beyond clinching Sunday’s victory. Looking ahead to 2015, the Cowboys face the prospect of losing two defensive ends to free agency — Anthony Spencer and George Selvie. Lose them both and Lawrence becomes the odds-on favorite to move into a starting role at one of the defensive end positions next season.
The Cowboys need someone to emerge that can be effective beyond Jeremy Mincey’s team-leading six sacks. Mincey was a nice addition this season, but he’s far more effective as a complementary piece to a pass rush puzzle that features a more effective, dare we say dominant, partner. Dallas drafted Lawrence to be that partner.
It was probably too much to ask for Lawrence to emerge as a star in his first NFL season. But to see him impact the game, as he did in that final defensive play on Sunday, was probably too much to hope for after seeing him register just nine tackles in seven regular-season games.
But if Sunday’s sack provides Lawrence an impetus to become a more vital part of the pass rush in this postseason and next season, then it was worth the wait.