49ers' Lawson relishing clearly defined role

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Sitting down with 49ers linebacker Manny Lawson was one of the highlights of my recent visit to the 49ers. Lawson is engaging and obviously bright. He is also one of the 49ers' key variables this season after the team did not land a pass-rusher in free agency or the draft.

General manager Scot McCloughan has maintained all along that Lawson could become a disruptive force as an outside linebacker. A torn anterior-cruciate ligament limited Lawson to two games in 2007. The schemes former coach Mike Nolan used limited Lawson's playing time in the first half of last season. Lawson was also working his way back from the injury.

This season stands as a pivotal year for Lawson. He had three sacks in a four-game period spanning October and November last season, but no sacks over the final five games. Seven or eight sacks from him in 2009 would significantly upgrade the pass rush, particularly if Parys Haralson builds on his eight-sack season.

You seem to have a role on this team. If I'd asked you about your role a year ago, what would you have said?

Manny Lawson: A year ago, it would have been for myself just really getting over the injury, trying to put it behind me and doing what the coaches ask of me. As far as the scheme went, especially early on, it was being the drop guy -- the guy who always drops into coverage and doesn't really rush that much.

And then toward the latter part of the year, that is when we really became a true 3-4 and I started being able to rush more. Both linebackers were on equally. You never knew who was going to drop or not. It depended on how the offense came out. This year, we are a 3-4. I have rushed more now than I can remember rushing all year. And right now we are in [organized team activities] and doing our offseason. I have gotten more rushes now doing one-on-one with the offensive line.

I am really ecstatic about the position I have. I think the position suits me. I think the position really does exploit all my athletic ability. My mentality, my mindset is to be that guy who can be disruptive in the backfield and also be able to rush the quarterback.

You've played a number of roles in the past, including safety in the nickel defense. What's the value in focusing on a more defined role?

ML: I think that really does benefit me. Whenever you have to play several other roles -- outside linebacker, occasionally a rush end, also dropping back deep middle -- now you have to work with DBs, work with D-linemen, work with outside linebackers. That is all the work I have to do physically. Now my mental work, I got to watch receivers so much, I have to watch offensive line, I have to watch quarterbacks.

It helped me. I don't regret anything. But man, to really just say, "Here is what you are going to do: You are going to be an outside linebacker and on third downs you can rush." My job has not changed. I know I got to beat a tight end or I got to beat an offensive tackle. Either side, but I got to beat those guys. I have to drop into coverage sometimes and play man-to-man. That's what's up. I like that. It's football and it's fun and it's really easy when you have a defined role.