By Dwain Price, NDG Sports Special Contributor
ARLINGTON – After a tumultuous season last year for the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence started the 2017 campaign as if he had a huge chip on his shoulders.
As the Cowboys opened the season Sunday night at AT&T Stadium with a workmanlike 19-3 triumph over the highly-touted New York Giants, Lawrence was the key figure on defense who paved the way for the defending NFC East champions. Nicknamed “Tank,’ Lawrence was a destructive force all night, finishing with five tackles, a pair of sacks, two quarterback hits and three tackles for losses.
It was a complete annihilation of the Giants by the Cowboys’ defense, thanks in large part to the show-stopping performance turned in by Lawrence.
“You’ve got to be happy for DeMarcus,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “His road has not been easy.
“There is no question that he is the player that we hoped for when we drafted him (in 2014). We hoped he’d get it together and be what he is on the field now – I’m talking about on the field with his technique and those types of things and not anything else.”
Lawrence recorded a sack of New York quarterback Eli Manning on the Giants’ first possession of the game, forcing a punt and setting the game’s tone. The 6-3, 265-pounder added another sack, thus doubling his entire sack total (of one) from a season ago in just one game.
Despite his solid performance, which helped hold the Giants to just 13 first downs and only 233 yards, Lawrence characterized his play as “average” against the team many critics picked to win the NFC East.
“I felt like I missed a lot out there and didn’t capitalize on the opportunities that I had all night,” Lawrence said. “I’ve just got to go back in the film room and learn from my mistakes and get better.”
While Lawrence – like most players – was very critical of himself, his teammates stepped forth and showered him with praise for the way he handcuffed the Giants’ offense.
“He knows he’s a little brother to me and I’m super proud of him,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “He came out there with a lot of energy and he did his thing.
“This is his year, he knows what he’s got to get done, and he got off to a good start.”
Cornerback Anthony Brown, who picked up a critical fourth-quarter interception against the Giants, credits Lawrence for the full blown pressure he applied to Manning all night long.
“Demarcus was awesome,” Brown said. “When we get pressure everything works together.
“The pressure improves the secondary, improves the linebackers. So that was great (Sunday) from him and the whole D-line.”
Lawrence led the Cowboys in sacks in 2015 with eight. But last year was one of those years he would just rather forget.
In January of last year, Lawrence had to undergo back surgery. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the NFL suspended him for the first four games of the 2016 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
On top of that, injuries – coupled with the four-game suspension — limited Lawrence to just nine games last season.
“It was a blessing and I give all honor to God just to go out there and to be able to be myself,” Lawrence said, in reference to his output against the Giants. “It was great to go out there and play freely, and my coaches, too, putting me in the right position, and my teammates.
“I feel like I can rush like I’m supposed to and live up to my abilities. Not being healthy the last couple of seasons kind of slowed me down and I feel like I got my speed back. Praise to the Lord. I’m healthy this year and I’ve got to stay that way.”
Lawrence is part of a much-maligned Cowboys defense that gets overshadowed by the team’s high-powered offense. But while the offense could only secure four Dan Bailey field goals and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Jason Witten against the Giants, the defense took center stage and completely obliterated New York’s vaunted offense.
“We’ve got to match their intensity,” Lawrence said, referring to the Cowboys’ offense. “They make a big play, so we’ve got to make a big play.
“We grind too hard not to live up to our expectations and I feel like we did that (Sunday).”
While they looked lethargic at times, the Cowboys’ offense had its moments. Prescott completed 24 of 39 passes for 268 yards and a TD.
And running back Ezekiel Elliott, who found out last Friday that he may be able to play the entire season after a federal judge in Sherman granted him a preliminary injunction and blocked his NFL-imposed six-game suspension for an alleged domestic violence case, rushed 24 times for 104 yards against the Giants.
“It just feels good to be put there with these boys,” said Elliott, in his first interview in weeks. “It’s definitely been a tough last 14 months, and at times it’s gotten so hard that you start to lose faith.
“But you know, just being able to come in and be with these boys every day has kept me focused and made me not give up and keep going.”
Elliott praised his teammates for keeping him balanced, especially Prescott.
“I mean Dak, like I said, since I’ve gotten here he’s become my best friend,” Elliott said. “When we’re out there it’s like nothing can stop us, and you know it’s just great having a guy like him to root me and kind of go through everything like this with me.
“Just relieved, just relieved for the fact that I’ll finally get a fair trial. I’ll finally get a chance to prove my innocence. I’m just happy that I’ll get to be with these guys for as long as its permitted and just not having to miss time and not having to be away from them.”
That sentiment is certainly shared by Lawrence, who is hoping for an injury-free season this year.