It’s an unusual rule for a 342-pound defensive tackle to live by, but Dexter Lawrence never wants to lose a footrace to a quarterback.
Sure enough, there the biggest man on the Giants defense was last Sunday, chasing a scrambling Baker Mayfield to the sideline, beating him to the first-down marker and knocking the ball loose for a fumble out of bounds to bring up fourth down near the end of the first quarter.
“One of my goals is to never let a quarterback outrun me,” Lawrence said. “That’s a little competitive thing I have in my head all the time. I was just trying to go get him. I don’t think it’s crazy. It was a big third-down play, so things like that are how I keep going.”
The play left defensive coordinator Wink Martindale — who was on the Ravens defensive coaching staff near the end of potential Hall of Famer Haloti Ngata’s career and calling the plays during Brandon Williams’ Pro Bowl season — in awe. He highlighted it during Monday’s defensive meeting.
“He’s a problem,” Martindale said. “The play where he chased Baker Mayfield down, I don’t know that in my career I’ve ever seen a big man like him make a play like that. That’s the kind of effort and leadership he brings to the defense.”
Lawrence’s role will be more important than ever Monday when the Giants play the Cowboys, and Leonard Williams — his partner on the interior defensive line for the last three seasons — is expected to miss a game for the first time in his career. But it won’t rattle a former first-round pick who Martindale described as “one of my most favorite players I’ve ever been around in my life” after just six months together.
“It just shows the trust I’ve been earning from him,” Lawrence said. “I just want to do my job every play, and he knows that I can do a little more — get other guys coming along and playing hard. He’s helped me with little confidence things or by allowing me to be a free player.”
Justin Ellis played under Martindale and with some of the NFL’s most talented defensive linemen in Baltimore. Was he equally impressed by Lawrence’s athleticism in keeping up with Mayfield?
“That was amazing to see — even I told him that,” the 334-pound Ellis said. “It takes a lot of want-to to put your body into overdrive and go get it. He wasn’t at a linebacker’s speed, but he was moving well for a big guy, with great effort.”
Lawrence, who won’t be a free agent until after the 2023 season because the Giants exercised his fifth-year option, also is showing signs that he might become more of a pass rusher in Martindale’s defense. He has six pressures, including three quarterback hits, through two games, and the season opener was the third-highest graded pass-rushing game of Lawrence’s four-year career, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Batting down balls, getting him off his spot, making him double-clutch, putting guys by his feet, little things like that affect the quarterback,” Lawrence said. “It’s hard to get a sack, and that’s what y’all go by. Everything has to go right, but if there is any way to make a quarterback flinch, that’s a win.”
Williams’ anticipated absence won’t change where Lawrence lines up or his responsibilities. The Giants could plug the hole with Ellis, with Jihad Ward moving inside after playing the last two games on the edge or with a one-tackle front as Martindale dips into his imagination to create a “position-less defense.”
“I’m just focused on getting into my groove and bringing my best game,” Ellis said. “Leonard is a special player, so it’s hard to fill those shoes.”
Lawrence’s shoes Sunday only need to keep up with fill-in quarterback Cooper Rush. Later in the season, however, he’ll test his closing speed — he ran a 5.05-second 40-yard dash out of Clemson in 2019 — against Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts.
“I might have chased down Kyler [Murray] one time,” Lawrence said. “I don’t think it really matters what quarterback it is. If I take a good angle, I can possibly get him or slow him up.”