A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Lions face a monumental decision over the next five weeks as the centerpiece of the defense, Ndamukong Suh, gets set to enter the open market.
Suh, 28, will be a free agent for the first time in his career on March 10. He is likely looking for a contract that would eclipse J.J. Watt’s $100 million deal (with a record $51.8 million guaranteed for a defensive player). The Lions reportedly are the favorites to sign Suh.
Suh was identified as a potentially special defensive tackle coming out of Nebraska. The Lions selected him second overall in 2010 after he tallied 85 total tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 12 sacks as a senior. His unique speed and ferociousness was examined in this ESPN Sports Science feature just before the draft.
As the centerpiece of the defense, Suh fortified the best run defense and third-best unit overall per Football Outsiders. Suh graded out as the third-best interior defensive linemen out of 81 qualifiers according to Pro Football Focus.
Known more for his pass rushing ability, Suh was equally dominate against the run (second among DTs and NTs) and pass (seventh) in 2014 per PFF. Only Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald joined Suh in the top seven versus the run and pass. Among DTs and NTs, Suh ranked third with 8.5 sacks, second with 44 solo tackles, and first with 37 quarterback hurries. He also was third in the entire league with 21 tackles for loss.
The Lions defensive numbers when Suh was on the field versus off it are staggering. Per ESPN Stats and Info, through week 16 of the regular season, the Lions had allowed over 1.2 more yards per rush without Suh on the field. Quarterback pressure steeply declined by over 10 percent with him on the sidelines. That is tangible impact that will be impossible to replace in one offseason.
This article is meant to examine the strengths of Suh and what he has brought to the Lions defense. Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit detailed the arguments in favor of keeping Suh and for letting him walk.
Let’s dissect the traits that have molded Suh into the total package at defensive tackle.
Suh lined up as the one-technique between the center and guard. The Patriots ran left behind two tight ends and a pulling right guard. At the snap, Suh was too quick for the center to reach him, and shot through the vacated hole to drop the ball carrier in the backfield.
Two plays later, Suh nearly sacked Brady on a quick receiver screen by exploding off the ball. Lined up as the one technique at right defensive tackle, he exploded off the ball and though it was a quick screen, nearly sacked Tom Brady before he could get out of his stance.
Against Tampa Bay, Suh used a fantastic burst at the snap to attack upfield and blew past the tackle responsible for pinning him inside. He was barely touched and flew into the backfield to stuff the play.
For a 305-pound human being, Suh is incredibly quick and agile. First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin took advantage of Suh’s unique skillset by lining him up all over the defensive line to create favorable matchups. He frequently stunted Suh and Ziggy Ansah, the team’s two best pass-rushers, and the results wrecked opposing offenses.
On this fourth quarter play against the Bucs, Austin had Suh loop all the way around the right edge, while Ansah crashed hard to the inside. This forced Josh McCown to flee the pocket right into the path of a hungry Suh, a terrifying predicament for a quarterback. He looped around the end, reacted to McCown’s movement and pummeled him. Many 300-pounders would have flown right past McCown and allowed him to keep the play alive.
On the first defensive play against Miami, the Dolphins left guard had the difficult task of reaching Suh to keep him out of the backfield. Suh played this run perfectly by keeping his hips parallel to the line of scrimmage, and used good leverage against the guard to hold his lane. This prevented a cutback alley for the runner. As the halfback neared, Suh used his strong hands to disengage from the block and make the stop.
On the second play of the possession, Suh matched up against right guard Mike Pouncey, a 2011 first round pick and two-time Pro Bowl selection. Suh fought off the initial punch to his helmet from Pouncey, stayed low and chucked the 305-pound guard with ease. Suh used his strength and technique to toss Pouncey aside for the sack.
Later in the game, Suh again showed his pass-rushing prowess as he used a swim move to push past the center and punish Tannehill.
It is rare for a defensive tackle to be such a dominant pass rusher. With his excellent technique, Suh is constantly in position to make plays, which is why his services are at a premium.
In week four of the 2013 season, Suh got under the pads of then-rookie guard Kyle Long and took him on a leisurely stroll into Jay Cuter’s lap. He nearly snapped Cutler’s leg in half on the sack.
Against the Dolphins, the Lions lined Suh out wide and slid Ansah beside him to the inside. They stunted Ansah around Suh after both crashed hard to the inside.
Suh actually shoved Pouncey off balance, which allowed Ansah to shed the block and come free.
Few defensive tackles can line up wide and make a play. Credit Austin for using Suh’s versatility to the Lions’ advantage.
Opponents made Suh the focal point of the offensive game plan each week and if they thought they could consistently block him with one man, they were usually wrong. Every team had to account for him in both the run and pass game. The constant double-teaming and attention allowed the linebackers to stay clean and run sideline-to-sideline making plays. DeAndre Levy led the league in solo tackles and Tahir Whitehead filled in admirably for an injured Stephen Tulloch. Suh’s presence certainly made their jobs easier.
Here the Dolphins doubled Suh, who held his own and kept the guard from reaching the second level. Suh absorbed the double-team and did not allow a lineman to touch Levy. The effort by Suh allowed Levy to stay clean and attack the back in the hole.
Against Dallas in the playoffs, Suh’s dominance was obvious during a crucial three-play stint in the fourth quarter.
On first down, Suh blew up the Cowboys patented stretch run by knocking the guard off balance, then penetrating into the backfield against the center. This forced DeMarco Murray to run wide, and allowed an unscathed Levy to make the play on the perimeter.
Suh then showed an outstanding motor to sack Romo on consecutive plays.
On the first sack, he powered through First Team All-Pro rookie guard Zack Martin. Suh displayed athleticism and fight in his relentless pursuit of Romo. He pushed the pocket and along with tight coverage downfield from Whitehead, forced Romo to pull the football down. Suh fought off a hold from Martin, sustained his balance, and leaped over the sprawled guard to continue his hunt for Romo.
On third-and-long, Suh forced Romo off his spot with a bull rush of left guard Ronald Leary. He again showed remarkable athleticism, strength, and determination to stay on his feet and slung Romo to the ground.
Free Press columnist Drew Sharp opined that the Lions should not overpay for Suh and I agree that there must be a limit to what the team is willing to spend on their star tackle. However, that ceiling should not dip below the $50 million guaranteed threshold for an elite, durable, consistent player at a key position in the midst of his prime.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.