The word "tank" has been floating around Dallas Cowboys fans and media for a few weeks now.
DeMarcus "Tank" Lawrence started off Sunday's game against the Bengals by giving that word a more positive context.
He technically didn't start the game---he had to run off the field as the Cowboys switched into a base defense---but Lawrence came in on the very next play and immediately stripped the ball out of running back Gio Bernard and Dallas recovered the ball. It was a much needed turnover for the maligned defense, and it led to a much needed win.
"He's a tone setter," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said Monday. "He is every game. He sets a great example for the other guys."
Lawrence attributed the forced fumble to "giving maximum effort" allowing him to get "lucky," but if you ask Nolan, it was the immediate result of a sustained effort by Lawrence to make an impact on the Cowboys run defense.
"Throughout the game it was noticeable to me that he was trying to be disciplined in his gap integrity," Nolan said. "He makes a lot of plays in the run game by being active and some of that is effort."
With all the poor luck and self-inflicted wounds of this Cowboys season, positive individual statistics are hard to come by. That's just as true for Lawrence, who is currently sitting on 4.5 sacks despite being touted as one of the league's most dangerous pass rushers. Nolan would surely like a higher level of production, but praised Lawrence for not letting his frustration lead him to unwisely chase sacks at the determinant of the defense.
"Guys do get paid and recognized for sacks, and DeMarcus is very good at that," Nolan said. "I think he did a good job yesterday of playing against the run, which is difficult because he wants to rush the passer."
Another word that was thrown around by the Cowboys' coaching staff was "finish." It seemed pretty clear to be code for "effort." As in, "We know what good 'finish' looks like." All of that talk was fairly vague, but came after a disappointing performance in Baltimore in which the defense in particular looked resigned to being unable to stop the Ravens' running attack. In Nolan's praise of Lawrence on Monday, he made clear that the pass rusher was not the target of such criticisms.
"That's D-Law's makeup," he said. "I don't ever question his finish nor do I question his effort."
Lawrence said that the same level of effort can be expected in the next few weeks, and he's hoping to see the same results as what happened in Cincinnati.
"We know what's at stake and we know what's in front of us. We gotta just finish these games out the right way. Make sure we stack these wins on top of each other and keep getting better. We are going to keep holding our heads up high."
You learn a lot about yourself when you're losing, but teams build rapport through wins, and Sunday they finally got another taste of a victory after what felt like an eternity of losses and injuries.
"We know---you know---how our season looked before," Lawrence said. "But we can't dwell on that and go into the tank. We have a lot of young guys on the team. They are getting better each and every week. It's all about coming together and building that camaraderie that we weren't able to build through COVID."
That won't be easy for those young players, or anyone else on the defense. But if you ask Nolan, they can start by following Lawrence.
"The way DeMarcus plays is without question a great example to anyone else who does play. He plays hard every down."