This article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Detroit Lions wasted little time looking to fill the crater-sized hole left by star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed a record deal in free agency with the Miami Dolphins last March.
Just two days after Suh was set to leave the Lions, the team aggressively traded for Baltimore Ravens five-time All Pro and five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata.
Ngata brings championship pedigree to a Lions franchise mostly bereft of winners. The Ravens made the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons, and won 10 playoff games during that span including Super Bowl XLVII in the 2012 season.
Ngata was the anchor on the Ravens’ great defenses of the last decade. Per Football Outsiders, the Ravens’ unit ranked in the top eight in defense in eight of his nine seasons.
Regarded as an athletic specimen at around 340 pounds when he entered the league, Ngata, 31, is a gifted athlete — how many 300-plus pound men can take one-step and dunk a basketball? — with light feet, strong hands and a master of defensive line technique.
He’s durable, having played in 135-of-144 career regular season games – he missed the last four regular season games last year after being suspended for violating the league’s performing-enhancing substances policy. While he can’t anchor a line for 50 snaps a game like in his younger days, Ngata remains an above average starter and a very productive player.
After being banged up the two seasons prior and moving around the line, Ngata settled in at defensive end last season and flourished in the Ravens 3-4, two-gap system, which called for him to occupy blockers while being responsible for the lanes on either side of him. That contributed to him recording 31 tackles, his lowest output since his rookie year (albeit in four fewer games). But numbers don’t do his play justice.
Let’s dissect Ngata’s game tape from last season to examine what he has left in the tank as he enters his Lions debut.
Ngata is a clinic on phenomenal technique. He has quick, heavy, violent hands and consistently controls his matchup. His job was to control his matchup and shed his block when the ball-carrier picked a side.
In a Week 8 matchup against Cincinnati, Ngata was unblockable. He beat both guards repeatedly and made right tackle Andre Smith look foolish when he lined up wide at the five-technique (outside the offensive tackle).
Ngata’s outstanding leverage allows him to toss 300-plus pound lineman around like they’re a teddy bear.
This is two-gapping at its finest, as Ngata occupies his block, finds the ball, and uses his hands to disengage and shed the guard to make the stop the halfback.
Try blocking him one-on-one in the run game and it usually doesn’t end well unless you run away from him.
If you watch Ngata on a handful of plays, you’ll start to notice his vicious punch and swim move to elude lineman. Many times, the lineman responsible for blocking Ngata looks silly like on this play. Bengals right tackle Andre Smith (No. 71) lunges to block the former Rugby star, but like many before him, blocks air while spilling to the turf.
Ngata was a huge reason why star rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley recorded 133 tackles last season. Ngata swallowed double teams, allowing Mosley free paths to roam to the football.
This is why defensive line play is critical to the success of linebackers, especially in a two-gap system like the Ravens ran.
Ngata’s size helps him to eat double-teams and give little ground in the run game. Last season, he mostly lined up as a defensive end (either side) in the three-technique (lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard). He swallowed double-teams and held his ground due to his unreal strength, excellent leverage and his hand use.
In the divisional playoffs, the New England Patriots try doubling Ngata on this simple power play, but he proves to be immovable as the right tackle eventually gives up and falls to the ground.
Ngata isn’t a consistent presence in the passing game, but he’s no slouch either. According to Pro Football Focus, in 12 games last year, Ngata graded as the ninth-best 3-4 defensive end among 47 players who played at least 25% of their team’s snaps. Per PFF, Ngata was equally effective against the run and pass.
His best pass rush move is to use his leverage and brute strength to bull rush his opposition. Ngata does a good job of pushing the pocket and forcing the quarterback to move off his preferred spot, which is all you can ask of an interior lineman.
Ngata’s motor doesn’t run non-stop and he will often abandon his pass-rush early if his initial move fails. He does a nice job of keeping his eyes on the quarterback in those situations and successfully gets his hands in the passing lanes. He batted down seven balls and intercepted two passes in 2014.
Ngata’s hand use is some of the best you’ll see, as exemplified on this play where he violently jolts the guard off balance with a power punch to the chest, forcing quarterback Tom Brady to get rid of the ball while not allowing him to step into the throw.
Ngata is a supremely gifted and unique athlete. How many defensive linemen can make this ridiculous play like Ngata did against Pittsburgh last season?
In Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s 4-3 scheme, Ngata will be asked to shoot gaps and aggressively attack upfield instead of holding his ground. Ngata has played in a 4-3 but there will be an adjustment period to the change in philosophy and change in technique, especially since Ngata didn’t play a single snap in the preseason.
Ngata showed the ability to make plays when asked to shoot gaps, as he made a handful of fantastic plays last season at the goal line. He is exceedingly quick for a man his size, and his terrific balance allows him to avoid cut-blocking linemen and penetrate into the backfield.
Is this a replay or what?
So, can Ngata fill Suh’s void?
Let’s not get this twisted. Ndamukong Suh is a generational talent with a non-stop motor and nearly unmatched power and athleticism at his size. Just check the film. Suh’s relentless persistence and motor sets him apart from the rest of the league’s interior linemen, especially as a pass rusher.
Ngata’s playing career is winding down, but to say he’s over the proverbial hill means you didn’t watch a snap of his 2014 film. He’s one of the most difficult guys to block one-on-one due to his savvy technique and skill, his brute strength and athleticism that remains far above average despite his age.
Now, Ngata will not play 81% of the defensive snaps like Suh remarkably did last year, and he’ll likely be rotated out on obvious passing downs to catch some rest, but the Lions are counting on Ngata replicating or coming close to matching his outstanding 2014 season. If he does, the Lions will be fine up front. If his play slips, this team will be in big trouble because Ngata is the only proven player at defensive tackle. He brings a lengthy winning pedigree and, though he’s a soft-spoken individual, guys will respect his resume and what he has to say. That should not be overlooked.
After combing over a handful of Ngata’s games from last year, I’m betting on another solid year from the big man. You should too.
Credit to NFL Game Pass for the game footage. All GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the Detroit Free Press.