Bills' 'dogs' Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips setting tone for defense

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- You can usually hear them before you see them, especially after a win.

Buffalo Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips have a specific role on what's been a dominant defensive line this season. That role goes beyond the X's and O's -- they help set a tone.

"Our role? The dogs, man. The dog in us -- you can't really teach that, coach that," Lawson said. "You've just got to be born with it. I think me and [Phillips] -- we've got a lot of guys who've got dog in them -- but me and Phil, we're the dog-setters. We set the tone. I feel like that's been a big part of our success this year."

Lawson and Phillips have each enjoyed the best statistical seasons of their careers in what's also a contract year for both players. It's not a guarantee they will return to Buffalo next season but they're building a difficult case for the Bills' front office to ignore.

Lawson, a 2016 first-round pick, has a career-high 5.5 sacks through 13 games and was instrumental in limiting Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards last week -- which caught the attention of Bills coach Sean McDermott.

"He's one of the dogs force that goes out and hunts," McDermott said Monday. "He's playing at a high level. I thought one of his greatest plays yesterday was the contain on the quarterback. To see Shaq play with square pads and at the line of scrimmage, move his feet and contain an athlete like that was very impressive and it just speaks to his discipline, being 1/11th and doing his part."

Lawson is Buffalo's only drafted player remaining from the franchise's previous coaching staff and front office, and the Bills declined to pick up his fifth-year option at the beginning of the season. It added fuel to critics' argument that the former Clemson product had been a disappointment. Lawson knows his first three seasons were statistically underwhelming and has responded by continuing to buy into the Bills' "week-by-week" approach and repurposing the outside noise.

"That's more motivation. We're out there playing like a dog, we know it's a contract year and things like that -- it's just a big chip on my shoulder," he said.

When McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane arrived in 2017, Lawson noticed a shift throughout the locker room and knew he had to get on board or get left behind.

"You can tell, everything just changed with the culture, bringing the right guys in," Lawson said. "Coach McDermott and Beane did everybody a favor, especially me. It turned me around as a player because when I first got here -- to me, it felt like a damn party. ... Ever since then, I've been progressing as a player."

Phillips is another product of the culture instituted by McDermott and Beane, a waiver addition in 2018 after essentially forcing his way out of Miami. Buffalo signed him to a one-year extension this past offseason but also drafted defensive tackle Ed Oliver in the first round of this year's draft.

In part due to Oliver's strong training camp and preseason, Phillips was used sparingly through the first three weeks of the season, playing fewer than 37% of the Bills' defensive snaps in each week. One year into his tenure in Buffalo, the former second-round pick sought to impact the game however he could, even if it meant doing so off the stat sheet.

"For a while, me and Shaq weren't getting very many snaps, so we had to affect the game the way we needed to," Phillips said. "That was bringing juice -- just trying to get everybody into the game and we'd make a few plays every once in a while when we get a chance to.

"Now we're both balling, we're both making a lot of plays. So we get to bring not only the juice, but also the playmaking ability."

Phillips exploded in Week 5 with three sacks against the Titans, officially asserting himself as a mainstay on Buffalo's defensive line. He leads the team with a career-high 7.5 sacks after compiling just 5.5 sacks in his four previous seasons.

"They bring a lot of energy, they're catalysts in terms of our energy, our juice, physicality," McDermott said. "Letting those guys flow, is kind of how I like to look at. Those guys bring a lot to our football team."

Phillips and Lawson have expressed interest in returning to Buffalo beyond the 2019 season, although neither is focused on his next contract.

With the Bills in playoff position and a prime-time matchup with the Steelers coming up Sunday, the contract talk can wait.