The Buffalo Bills' newest first-round draft pick has received nearly universal praise in the draft community, but one concern has been voiced a number of times: Shaq Lawson has a slow first step. He doesn't really stress an offensive tackle at the snap, and he'll struggle as a pass rusher as a result.
While you'll never confuse Lawson for freak athletes like Bud Dupree (link) or Vic Beasley (link), his initial quickness is good enough for the NFL. But why the disconnect? It comes down to scheme and coaching.
Not every edge rusher approaches the snap the same way. If he did, it would be too predictable for his opponent. In general, there are three ways that an edge rusher can set up his initial movement. Defenses mix and match these approaches to suit their philosophies and individual play calls. Each can have a dramatic effect on how fast a player appears to move on tape. Let's break them down.
In the spectrum of risk-reward for these approaches, the cadence read is the highest risk but the greatest chance of reward. The player essentially tries to predict the snap count, going as soon as the ball should be snapped. Sometimes the risk is actually low enough to make this the ideal option. Think of the Buffalo Bills' game against Philadelphia last year, where the silent snap count used by John Miller and Eric Wood was enough to hand Fletcher Cox several big plays. If the snap count is predictable (and it often is with NCAA football), a defensive lineman can move before anyone on offense, gain a step on his opponent, and set up the move to earn himself a sack. That explains why players like Jarvis Jones can be considered first-round picks, and then run a lousy workout at the Combine.
As you may have guessed, the drawback of the cadence read is that if the player guesses wrong, he'll jump offside. And that's why the Bills like bringing EJ Manuel on the field:
The next level of the spectrum is the ball read. In this situation, a player is watching the ball being held by the center. As soon as the ball moves, he moves. It has the speed and aggression of a cadence read, without the risk of being drawn offsides. There is one downside to this approach, however: if a player is watching the ball, he can't watch his opponent. A guard or tackle can set up his blocking assignment and possibly catch the defender off balance.
It's not a major disadvantage, however, and that is why the ball read is a common find in pass-rushing situations. You can notice it by watching the direction of a player's helmet. If it's pointed toward the center, he's making a ball read.
Here's a Lawson snap against Miami where he appears to be approaching the snap with a ball read. Notice that he's moving at the same time as his teammates, and his speed, power, and flexible tempo earn him a sack.
This is the read that makes a pass rusher look "slow" off the ball. If you ever wondered why Randy Gregory and Danielle Hunter received so much press last year despite taking up to a full second to move after the snap, it's because they were assigned to a tackle read.
The tackle read is the safest approach a defender can take. Instead of watching the ball, he has his eyes trained on the player in front of him. He's not moving until that player moves. If the player moves early, he can draw a false start. By watching his opponent at the snap, he is better prepared to match up against him. He'll know which direction the lineman is stepping, he can train his eyes on the backfield to read the play, and he can watch the lineman's hands and prepare to counter.
The drawback here is obvious: by not moving until the opponent moves, you're giving up on whatever advantage the first step would grant you. It's very hard to win a speed rush off of a tackle read. Usually, this role is assigned to a backside defender or a "contain" player, one without the expectation of a pass rushing responsibility. In Oregon's defense, for instance, they don't even focus on having outstanding pass rushes. Almost all of their players use tackle reads.
This was Lawson's primary responsibility at Clemson. He played a lot of contain, and made a lot of tackle reads, and the result was that he looked slow off the ball. Look at these two plays versus Notre Dame, and pay attention to three things: when Lawson moves, when his teammates move, and when the lineman across from him moves.
There's a clear difference between when Lawson is moving, and when his teammates are moving. That's by design. Deshone Kizer is able to run with the ball, and Clemson doesn't want to give up the edge.
Lawson isn't slow, he was just reacting to tackles instead of the ball moving. While he probably doesn't have the first step that earns Jerry Hughes money, he's going to bring some pass rushing force to Buffalo nonetheless.
As someone who doesn't coach football or anything, I haven't been exposed to all of the techniques out there. I imagine there are some other snap approaches that are used, or possibly the same ones under different names. This is just how I was taught. If you have any other insights from your coaching or playing days, share them in the comments below!