FRISCO, Texas (AP) - As DeMarcus Lawrence prepares to share the field with J.J. Watt for the first time in the regular season, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli figures it's time to say his best defensive end shares the elite company of the Houston Texans star.
Lawrence leads the NFL in sacks early in the season for the second straight year, and has 20 sacks over 20 games since the start of last season. It's not quite the territory of Watt, who had 20½ sacks in a season twice while earning All-Pro honors four straight years starting in 2012.
But it's at least proving another thing Marinelli believes.
"People ask, 'Is he a one-year wonder last year?'" Marinelli said Thursday. "I said, 'Two years before that, he had eight sacks and played well.' He, to me, is on a course, because of his work habits, how much he cares, to be great. I think we see him on the rise."
The 26-year-old Lawrence tied his career high with three sacks in last week's 26-24 win over Detroit and leads the NFL with 5½. That's half a sack better than a three-way tie that includes Watt and Chicago's Khalil Mack, who got the nod over Lawrence for NFC defensive player of the month in September.
It's the second straight year that Lawrence has started fast . He had a seven-game sack streak after going without one in the 2017 opener and ended up tied with Jacksonville's Calais Campbell for second in the NFL with 14½ sacks.
This year, Lawrence has at least half a sack in all four games with the Cowboys (2-2) set to visit the Texans (1-3) on Sunday night.
"I look at it like this," Lawrence, who hasn't been available to reporters in the locker room this week, said before the season started. "This is my job. I'm passionate about it. I love it. Yeah, I'm eager to get back out there and show what went on in the offseason and different moves I picked up on. Just to go after the gold."
By "gold," Lawrence meant a championship, something that's been 23 years in the making for a franchise with five Super Bowl titles. But he's chasing the other kind of gold, too.
Lawrence is playing on a $17.1 million franchise tag after the sides didn't even get close to a long-term extension during the offseason. He happily signed it and shrugged off repeated questions about it during training camp, usually with something along the lines of, "I ain't trippin'."
As the sack numbers pile up again, Lawrence could be looking at a huge payday - or another year on the franchise tag, which he probably wouldn't sign so happily again. At the same time, Lawrence has made it clear he can't afford to dwell on such things.
"I love this game so much," he said. "This game can wrap you up around so many different obstacles of money, the streets, all the outside B.S. I just try to stay focused and get the job done."
Marinelli and coach Jason Garrett frequently point to a pair of key moments in Lawrence's career.
The first was late in a wild-card win over the Lions four years ago when Lawrence tried to run with a fumble after Matthew Stafford was sacked and fumbled it back to Detroit. The rookie atoned by sacking Stafford, forcing a fumble and recovering it to secure just the team's second playoff win since its last Super Bowl victory.
"He made one of the more memorable plays, sequence of plays, that I've been around in my life," Garrett said. "In a lot of ways, that followed what we had seen already. I think we all knew good things were to come."
The second was Lawrence choosing to play through back troubles when the Cowboys returned to the playoffs in 2016 even though he was on his way to his second surgery in as many offseasons.
The payoff has been his health since then, and the carry over in production from his breakthrough season to the next.
"I just think it's mindset, understanding once the season ends, that player ends," Marinelli said. "You've got to start over again. He's brought that mindset with him every day. His routine, his practices. Some of his practices are just really terrific, how hard and fast he goes."
It's carrying over to games as well.
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