When the Giants acquired Leonard Williams in a trade with the Jets last October, one of the first new teammates to reach out to the defensive lineman was Dexter Lawrence.
Not because they were both first-round picks. Not because they were going to be on the same roster. Not even because they were going to be playing next to each other.
He did it simply because he was a fan.
"I used to watch him when I was in high school and he was in college," Lawrence said this week. "I tell him that all the time. He doesn’t like when I say that. I kind of joke about that a little bit."
Williams doesn’t mind too much. It’s not like he’s a creaky old man. He’s 25, and Lawrence is 22.
"Dex, I love that guy," Williams said. "I don’t want to play any favorites, but he’s one of my best friends on the team."
Maybe that bond is one of the reasons why they have started this season as one of the top defensive line combinations in the league. Each of them had a sack against the Steelers – the only two on the team -- and both of them were part of the reason why the Giants had the eighth-best pass rush win rate in the NFL’s opening weekend according to ESPN.
Or maybe it’s because that’s exactly what they set out to do.
On a team that is in flux in the secondary, Lawrence and Leonard and the rest of the defensive front have taken it upon themselves to make as much of an impact as possible.
"Our mindset since the end of the season is we were going to dictate the speed of the game, we were going to take charge of everything," Lawrence said. "The D-line, we take on that responsibility to be those guys, to be the people to go get it. That’s just our role and our leadership."
Besides their sacks, the two big men accounted for a combined nine tackles, three of them for a loss, and three quarterback hits. But they don’t have to fill up a stat sheet to make an impact on the game. Those who play behind and beside them appreciate their efforts… and their combined 644 pounds.
"The first day I came here and I got to see those guys in person stand in front of me, I told Pat [Graham, the defensive coordinator] ‘thank you’ and then moved on from there," inside linebacker Blake Martinez said after recording a team-high 12 tackles while the line shielded him from blockers. "They did a lot of great things [Monday] night and it kind of trickled on back to help each and every one of us out there."
Added outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, whose rush pushed Ben Roethlisberger toward Lawrence for his sack: "You’ve gotta love it, you’ve gotta love those big guys up front. But it’s something we’ve known. We’ve got a crazy defensive line. That room over there, I love playing with them. Those guys are going to fight, they’re going to scratch and claw… That energy is contagious, man. We need guys like that throughout the defense. Like you saw, they make their plays."
They certainly did that on Monday. And they were able to appreciate each other’s highlights.
Williams recorded his first full sack since the 2018 season finale, perhaps a signal that his offseason efforts to focus on finishing off plays is starting to pay off. Williams spent most of 2019 fluttering around quarterbacks and had plenty of pressures and hits on them, but wound up with just half of an official sack in eight games with the Giants and Jets.
"He was out there doing his thing, making plays," Lawrence said. "This year, I feel like he has a lot more confidence and he’s just taking on that role. He came back looking better and feeling better, so it’s all positive."
And Lawrence? Besides his sack he also made a standout play when he brought down Jaylen Samuels from behind on a screen pass on the final snap of the third quarter.
"I was on the field when that play happened so I saw it live and it looked crazy," Williams said. "After watching it on film I went up to him and I was like, ‘I know you got a sack and we all love sacks, but that might have been your best play of the game.’ It was just really a high football IQ play, and good reaction skills and good athleticism for him to break through the line like that, find the back, track him down and pull him down with one hand. That was a great play from him."
The two agreed that having such a close relationship does in fact help on the field.
"Just the silent communication we can have and don’t give the offensive line any tips, little things like that," Lawrence said. "Just eye contact or just the feeling that if I overcommit to a move, he can make up for it or something like that."
"Even when we’re in a base with three down linemen, me and Dex will flop sides sometimes," Williams said. "Because we want to try different sides and after we flop sides we’ll say if you’re on the right side and you’re feeling better than you are on the left side, let me know and I will let you work the right side more. Since me and Dexter play basically the same position but on opposite sides, sometimes we like to switch sides to feel out the offensive line."
There is one area where they do disagree, though.
"Leonard? Yeah, his celebration was a little nice," Lawrence said of his buddy’s dance after his sack on Monday. "But mine was a little better."
They’re hoping it’s a competition that will continue throughout the season.