49ers key to success: LB Manny Lawson

Manny Lawson was asked by SFI this week what best describes what he can bring to the 49ers as an every-down LB in 2009. Will he be a pass-rushing force? A sideline-to-sideline playmaker? A coverage specialist? "I choose all of the above," Lawson replied. To be sure, the 49ers need the versatile veteran to excel in all three areas as he takes on one of the key roles in the team's defensive scheme.

Now healthy and "100 percent" recovered from the knee injury that ruined his 2007 season, Lawson is ready for the huge responsibilities of which he'll be asked this year to make the team's 3-4 system run smoothly, and he's also ready to take the next step to stardom in a career that began with high expectations but has crept along gradually since then.

"I want to be that type of person that when opposing teams look at you, they really have to point me out and say you really have to account for this guy, you really have to get a hand on him when he rushes," Lawson said. "You really have to block him whenever we're running away from and to him. And then when you're (in coverage), you really have to get of his block."

That about covers everything the 49ers are looking for from Lawson at the all-important strong-side linebacker position. If he can do those things, it will make the entire defense around him better and more effective.

The 3-4 scheme is built for its outside linebackers to make plays, particularly as quarterback-seekers on passing downs. And unlike his first three seasons, when Lawson often came off the field during passing downs, he will be used regularly as a pass rusher, something at which he excelled in college and one of the main reasons the 49ers traded to acquire an extra first-round draft pick to select him in 2006.

"I like to create havoc," Lawson said, "and that's what my role is, just to create havoc so the guys back there in the middle can scrape it up and make plays."

That makes Lawson one of the key players to the 49ers' success in 2009. A lot will be resting on the strong shoulders of the 6-foot-5 speedster who has improved his strength and explosive power by adding almost 20 pounds of muscle since his rookie season without losing any of his quickness.

Actually, Lawson's job this season will be more than just to create havoc. And how he performs as an every-down player will be vital to the success of a unit that climbed to No. 13 in the NFL's final defensive rankings last season.

That matched San Francisco's highest ranking since 1997 and helped the team surge to a 5-2 finish during last year's 7-9 season that has the 49ers expecting big things in 2009.

Lawson figures prominently in those high expectations. San Francisco's defense improved significantly over the last half of the season last year when Lawson became a full-time performer. He often played only on first and second downs earlier in the season.

While the 49ers are on the verge of becoming one of the NFL's better defensive units, the team still lacks a consistent pass rush. That was one of San Francisco's weaknesses last year when the team finished with 30 sacks.

Only three of those sacks belonged to Lawson, giving him just 5.5 to show for his first three seasons. A lot more was expected from Lawson after he came out of college considered as one of the nation's top pass-rushing prospects.

This year promises to be different as a healthy Lawson will be featured as a pass rusher.

"I'm a better Manny Lawson now," he said. "My role here suits me now. I'm going to get to rush more and I'm expecting things to happen for me. I want to be a high-sack guy, especially now that I've got the opportunity to be showcased."

The 49ers haven't produced a player with double-digit sacks since Andre Carter recorded 12.5 in 2002. With Parys Haralson's emergence at weak-side linebacker last season, when Haralson led the 49ers with eight sacks despite not becoming a full-time regular until midway through the season, opponents will have another rushing force to contend with, which could leave Lawson with many one-on-one opportunities on passing downs.

Lawson says he's finally at the point in his career where he can take advantage of those opportunities and make an impact putting heat on opposing quarterbacks.

"I'm getting an opportunity to rush and that's what I want to do," Lawson said. "I don't set myself to a number, but double digits (in sacks) is fine. I'd like to be double digits. But what's a double-digit number? You can get more than that. With that said, I'm going to give everything I've got."
Coming off torn knee ligaments that abruptly ended his promising 2007 season after two games, Lawson returned to his starting position last season but was worked in slowly by former head coach Mike Nolan. Lawson often left the field during passing situations in Nolan's hybrid scheme that switched between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments.

When Nolan was fired near midseason, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was given full control over his unit and simplified the team's basic scheme to a true 3-4.

Manusky put Lawson back on the field in more of a full-time role, and both Lawson and the San Francisco defense surged to the end of the season.

Now Lawson will fill that role from the start of the season, and the 49ers need him to continue to progress individually to continue their surge as a defense.

"He's progressing quite well but he needs to keep it going," Manusky said. "He's going to be coming off the edge in our sub-package. He's an explosive player who's got those long arms and a long reach and he takes a sight line and he goes."

Lawson has been showing it all during training camp so far – explosion off the edge in passing situations, the speed, savvy and power to chase down plays and the ability to run with tight ends and running backs when he's in coverage.

It has raised expectations again that Lawson can be a force in San Francisco's defensive plans – particularly Lawson's own expectations.

"I think the expectations I hold myself to are higher than what other people hold me to," Lawson said. "But this team has shown a lot of trust in me. So my expectations are to be one of the best outside linebackers, to be remembered, and to really do whatever it takes for our team to bring that ring back to San Francisco."

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