EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dexter Lawrence had played eight games in his 2019 rookie season when the Giants acquired Leonard Williams in a trade. Lawrence has since played in 42 more games and Williams has been by his side in the trenches for every one of them.
But Monday night, the fourth-year defensive lineman might have to play without his running mate. Williams has not practiced this week after hurting his right knee in the Giants' 19-16 victory against Carolina last Sunday. His availability for the team's prime time showdown against the Dallas Cowboys is in doubt.
In addition to playing together on the defensive front, Lawrence and Williams are close friends who were voted team captains this season.
"I just feel like I have to play for him this game," Lawrence said today. "It's just extra motivation that I have."
Lawrence will still have plenty of help in an attempt to stop Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' rushing attack and pressuring quarterback Cooper Rush. The Giants' remaining interior defensive linemen are veterans Justin Ellis and Nick Williams and rookie D.J. Davidson.
"We have a lot of depth and it's been showing over the first couple of weeks," Lawrence said. "I feel like guys like Jelly (Ellis), D.J. stepping up. Guys that we feel like we've just been doing a good job of getting them ready. (Leonard Williams) definitely is a key point of the defense, big captain. We've just got to keep going, keep the boat rowing.
"The next guy has got to step up. Guys like (former defensive lineman) B.J. (Hill) was with me for a while or Dalvin (Tomlinson) or A.J. (Austin Johnson). Obviously, (Williams) is a big piece of the defense, but at the same time, I trust the guys next to me to be able to step up and do their job."
Lawrence is playing as well as anyone on the defensive line. In two games, he has six tackles (including five last week) and three solo, three quarterback hits and one forced fumble. But his value extends well beyond the numbers. The 6-4, 342-pounder often attracts double teams and his size and quickness help him stifle an opponent's run game even if he doesn't get his hands on the ballcarrier.
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has coached hundreds of players in a 35-year career that includes 18 seasons in the NFL. He has seldom worked with a player like Lawrence.
"He's maybe one of my most favorite players that I've ever been around in my life," Martindale said. "He's a great guy, first of all – a great person. And he's a problem. I mean, he is athletic."
"We've been together for what, six months?" Lawrence said. "It just shows the trust that I've been earning from him and the work ethic and learning his scheme pretty well and just being a leader."
Martindale was still applauding a play Lawrence made late in the first quarter last week. On third-and-four from the Panthers' 45-yard line, he chased quarterback Baker Mayfield to the Giants' sideline, limiting him to a three-yard gain and forcing him out of bounds.
"I told the whole defense on Monday, the play where he chased Baker Mayfield down and got him short of the sticks on that scramble, I don't know (if) in my career I've ever seen a big man like that make a play like that," Martindale said. "And that's the kind of effort and leadership that he brings to the defense. And he and Leo (Williams) and X (safety Xavier McKinney) and Julian (Love), they've been the blocks of granite. (Cornerback) Adoree' (Jackson) on the outside has been playing lights out, and we're just excited to go get this thing cranked up on Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys."
In pursuing Mayfield, Lawrence showed he's as determined as he is big.
"One of my goals is to never let a quarterback outrun me," he said. "That's kind of like a competitive little thing I just have in my head all the time. I was just trying to go get him, really."
Lawrence said, "that's fair" when it was mentioned to him it might sound crazy that a player his size can run down a fast quarterback like Mayfield.
"I don't think it's crazy," Lawrence said. "That's just my little competitive edge. There's a big second or third down-play, things like that – that's just how I just keep going."
That's exactly what the Giants expect from Lawrence, with or without Williams next to him.
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*Defensive end Azeez Ojulari is confident he will make his season debut Monday night. The second-year pro missed the first two games with a calf injury suffered in practice on Aug. 25.
"I'm definitely confident, for sure," Ojulari said. "Just thanks to the training staff and strength staff for getting me back in. (I'm) taking it day-by-day every day, getting treatment and feeling better."
Last season, Ojulari led the Giants with a franchise rookie-record 8.0 sacks. He played in all 17 games, starting 13. Because he is so accustomed to being on the field, Ojulari detested his two games as a spectator.
"It's been tough just sitting on the side, watching when you know you can be out there," he said. "But it's God plan. And things happen for a reason. It's part of the game – injuries. Now I'm back. I'm ready. It's time to go.
"It hurts, but it's all good. We got the dub. At the end of the day, that's what matters – winning. So, on to the next win. Ready to prepare for Dallas."
*Five defensive backs – three not practicing and two limited - were included on the Giants' first injury report of the week. Aaron Robinson (appendix), Nick McCloud (hamstring) and Justin Layne (concussion) were joined by defensive lineman Leonard Williams (knee) and wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson (knee) as those who did not practice.
Those who practiced but were limited were safeties Dane Belton (clavicle) and Jason Pinnock (shoulder), center Jon Feliciano (shin), linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (knee), defensive end Azeez Ojulari (calf) and wide receiver Kadarius Toney (hamstring).
*Two notable Dallas defensive players did not practice – linebacker Micah Parsons (illness) and cornerback Trevon Diggs (personal). Tight end Dalton Schutlz (knee) and center Connor McGovern (ankle) also sat out. Wide receiver Michael Gallup (knee) practiced fully.