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Finally Healthy, Lawrence Producing One Of Cowboys' Best Pass-Rushing Seasons

DeMarcus Lawrence is a man of many talents, from cooking – his specialty is chicken Alfredo – to playing hoops and, of course, rushing the quarterback. And who knows, maybe after his football career is concluded, the man they call "Tank" could look into acting. He has the looks, certainly knows how to dress the part and, oh yeah, he spent the better half of last year lying to everyone: friends, family, teammates, coaches, trainers and even himself.

"He did a good job, a great job, of lying to us all," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says. "It's just that DeMarcus is so positive, so upbeat, so confident. One of his strengths is confidence, and what he says, he does, so it was tough for us. You wanted to believe him."

This season, there has been no need for Lawrence to talk himself onto the field. Forget having a career year, Tank is producing one of the most impressive pass-rushing campaigns in franchise history. His 11.5 sacks through Week 12 were ranked among the league's leaders, as were his three forced fumbles. He was also one of the frontrunners for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Everyone knows about the two back surgeries, one in each of the last two offseasons. And obviously Lawrence was hurting in 2016, when he played just nine games and tallied all of one sack. It was easy for some, maybe more than some, to label the second-round pick a bust. Never mind that the defensive end finished the previous season with seven sacks in the second half and appeared on the verge of stardom. In this world, it's all about the here and now, and when reports came of how explosive and dominant Tank looked at training camp, few took notice.

The reality is that Lawrence was never healthy last year. He probably shouldn't have suited up at all, but he's a football player, and he loves his teammates, and that's what football players do. He was actually seeing a little improvement just before Thanksgiving, but further pain quickly followed and he was sidelined for a month before somehow, someway taking the field against Green Bay in the playoffs.

"I couldn't even bend over most of the season. It was tough," Lawrence says. "I was lying to myself and everyone else about how real the pain was. 

"The trainers knew how bad it was, but it was just a mindset for me, that everything is OK, everything is good. I didn't want to let my teammates down. That was my main purpose, standing alongside them."

The first few hours of each day were always the toughest, his back at its tightest, the pain almost a constant. Putting his 6-foot-3 frame in his car for the ride to The Star was the least favorite moment of the morning. He'd arrive early most days and sit in the hot tub longer than anyone would recommend, the goal being to thaw away the pain. And some days, that would loosen his back up enough so he could practice. Most days, though, not so much.

As for how he played against the Packers, Lawrence smiles, shakes his head, and says, "I guess through the graces of God and my own will. Well, Toradol and Tylenol helped, too."

Within days of the surgery, the shooting pain through Lawrence's leg, which had really become his norm for the better part of two years, was gone. Throughout the ensuing physical therapy and rehab, Lawrence was becoming more and more confident that the pain was indeed gone for good. That he would be able to be his old self when camp started in late July.

Around this same time, Lawrence made another decision. He was going to lose weight. And he was going to lose good weight, no crash diet, no eating less. The objective was simple: Arrive at training camp in the best shape of his life.

"Imagine having double back surgeries. I mean, you can't put a person in much more pain than that when you're trying to play D-line," Tyrone Crawford said earlier this season. "He just tried to fight through it and get through it and didn't make excuses."

Shortly after his surgery in early February, Lawrence weighed 280 pounds. At the Scouting Combine four years earlier, he was at 255. There wasn't a definitive goal in terms of pounds, it was more that he just wanted to resemble … wait for it … a Tank.

The bike rides started in the spring, Crawford suggesting they peddle to and from workouts at The Star in Frisco.

"We were talking about what type of year he needs to have, and I just said, 'We should do something extra and do workouts on our bike,'" Crawford says. "It's not crazy far. The hills are what kill us."

It's about a 40-minute ride, a lot of the second half uphill. Lawrence hadn't spent much time on a bike in his life, but quickly picked it up, outside of being able to pull the front tire airborne to jump the curb.

"I needed to stay more fit, I needed more speed, and those bike rides help a lot, flushing our knees, helping our core strength. That's played a big part in what I'm doing this season," Lawrence says.

The weight started falling off as well, his body fat, already low to begin with, dipped. When camp started, he weighed 268 and by midseason, Lawrence was tipping the scales at 258. More than likely, by season's end, he should be back at his combine weight, some 25 pounds dropped. And the bike rides have continued throughout. Every Tuesday, Lawrence and Crawford take two wheels to work instead of four.

As a result, those same two legs have become among the most feared in the NFL this season. Lawrence tallied at least one sack in nine of the team's first 11 games. Based on that pace, he has a chance at cracking 20 sacks for the year, which would make him the second Cowboys player to do so, joining DeMarcus Ware, and the 11th in league history. Tank is hardly one-dimensional, either, and is within striking distance of joining Lawrence Taylor (1986), Reggie White (1987) and Chris Doleman (1989) as the only players with 70 tackles and 20 sacks in the same season.

When presented with the list of players with at least 20 sacks in a campaign, Lawrence takes a look and is clearly impressed and respectful of names like Derrick Thomas, J.J. Watt, Jared Allen and Michael Strahan.

"That would definitely be cool, but I need to block that out," he says. "I don't set goals in terms of numbers and stats. I feel like if I do, and I reach it, then I can get complacent and start worrying about being in that spot. That's not where I want to be. I want to be the best I can be and the best in the world."

As far as the Defensive Player of the Year chatter, "It'd be great to win, but we're talking in future tense, and I need to stay in the here and now. Anything is possible. The main thing is getting there, and I'm not there yet. Also, I feel like no one deserves that award if they can't help their team win and be in position to win the Super Bowl."

After missing the first two months of his rookie campaign because of a broken bone in his foot, Lawrence didn't see much of the field, having just fallen too far behind. However, in the postseason, it was another story, as he registered a sack in each game and forced a fumble against the Lions that he recovered. Expectations were high entering 2015, and while the Cowboys suffered arguably their most disappointing season in franchise history, Lawrence shined with 55 tackles, eight sacks and a forced fumble. He also had 10 stuffs, or tackles behind the line of scrimmage that aren't sacks.

So while some have been surprised by his success – heck, his dominance – this season, Marinelli isn't among them.

"What I saw from his first days here was that his determination is off the charts, and if he could stay healthy, this thing was ready to take off," Marinelli says. "He was dominant in the second half of 2015. People forget that. Unbelievable. Not just the sacks, either, but how hard he plays.

"It's his rush and the consistency of the rush. I think he sets the pace and tempo for everything this defense does. And he's in great shape; he's leaned down. I like guys lean. I want guys to be able to play fast, and I think they recover quicker.

"I knew if he was healthy, and the key really has been the weight loss, I knew with that combination he was going to do something special this season."

The biggest challenge for Marinelli, the defensive coaches and even Lawrence has been finding different paths to the quarterback as offensive blocking schemes have evolved since Tank started the year with 6.5 sacks in the first three games. The changes were first noticeable against the Rams in Week 4, although he still extended his sack run through seven games before finally falling short in the Kansas City win. The streak was the longest in the NFL since Ware went eight games in 2012.

Not only are there double-teams now, but Lawrence is being chipped by tight ends on almost every passing down and seeing some attention from running backs as well. This has allowed Crawford and David Irving more one-on-one opportunities, and consequently, the Cowboys had 28 sacks through Week 12.

"Man, it could be all five of them," Lawrence says of the offensive line. "I feel like, put that many on me and then someone else is free on our line or a linebacker will shoot the gap. They put three guys on me, fine. Their numbers are going to be skewed. That's eight against 10, and I'll take that.

"We all have the same dream lining up on the defensive line, and that's getting to the quarterback. And it's a race to get there."

Views of Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawernce from his 3 sack night vs the Cardinals at University of Pheonix Stadium, in Glendae Arizona. 

Of the 10 players to register 20 sacks in a season, all but Watt in 2012 had at least eight the previous year. As a rookie in 2011, Watt tallied 5.5. So Lawrence has a real chance at breaking that mark of improvement, which for those non-math majors out there is 15. More importantly, though, the Cowboys seem to have a legitimate pass rush and a big-time anchor for the first time since the days of Ware and Anthony Spencer.

As for those worried about Lawrence's contract expiring at season's end, there's no chance the Cowboys let him walk, and more than likely, just to make sure of his health, he'll receive the team's franchise tag.

"I want to play here forever, my entire career, from the first game to the last," Lawrence says. "I grew up a Cowboys fan, my father is a lifelong Cowboys fan. I love the fans. It's where I want to be."

The challenge now becomes ending the season like he started it, even with the added attention from opposing fronts and the increased spotlight in the race for Defensive Player of the Year. Lawrence has turned down the majority of national one-on-one media requests. Not because he's shy. He's not. And not because he doesn't like talking with the press. He's one of the most approachable players in the locker room.

It's just that, in his mind, nothing has changed. He has always been explosive. He has always, in his words, been balling, thus, there's nothing to really talk about. Also, as with almost everyone on the team, they are quick to deflect accolades or individual attention. It's about the group, the Jason Garrett mindset the team has long since embraced.

In addition, there's a lot of football season left, and in this his fourth NFL campaign, Lawrence has yet to dominate from start to finish.

"The key is to keep doing it, dealing with the grind all season, the different blocking schemes once you have success," Marinelli says. "But yeah, so far this season, what he has done, he fits in with some of the really great pass rushers I've ever been around. Know what all those guys had in common? The best I've coached, they are thinking about football all the time. They are talking about football. They are going through their moves whenever you see them.

"DeMarcus lives football. He loves the game so much. He's constantly visualizing his pass-rushing techniques, the mental creation, and once you create it, you can start working toward it. Without a creation, you are just sweating. Work hard and work smart, it's a mental creation."

There is no longer any reason to lie. DeMarcus Lawrence has been the most dominant defensive force in the league this season and at 25 years young, there's no reason to believe he won't be just that for the foreseeable future.

Any defensive coordinator, Marinelli included, will tell one and all that a good defense starts with the pass rush. The Cowboys have one, and it's anchored by a Tank.

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