Stories of the Season: Ndamukong Suh

| November 11, 2010

If we were starting a football team tomorrow, we’d probably find room for Ndamukong Suh on it. He’s got remarkable physical skills, makes big plays in every game, and certainly seems to have a bright future.

But what is Suh at this point in the year? Is he a hands-down Pro Bowler, deserving Defensive Rookie of the Year winner, and one of the league’s most dominant linemen?

Or is he the guy who rests in the bottom third of our defensive tackle rankings —and isn’t even in the top 10 at his unquestioned specialty, pass rush?

HE’S NOT A HALL OF FAMER YET

Let’s start to paint an accurate picture of the kind of season Suh is actually having, not the one most people think he is having or even the one that our naked ratings portray.

The first, and possibly most important thing to say about it is that Suh is clearly immensely talented, with massive ability. There’s a reason he was taken so high in the draft, and you can see it on tape immediately. There isn’t a game that passes in which he doesn’t make at least one play that showcases some special physical ability. Even in his latest outing against arguably the league’s best O-line, he managed to make Jets guard Brandon Moore look silly on a couple of occasions.

He is also being asked to play more snaps than any other defensive tackle in the league — 63.8 per game, which is more than any DT has averaged in any of our three seasons grading games.

But just because he pops up on highlights on a weekly basis doesn’t mean that there aren’t large portions of the game in which he is anonymous, or even worse, doing badly — getting handled by his blockers. Anybody telling you these periods and plays aren’t there, that Suh is above that, is wrong.

The obvious thing to say about Suh — far from unusual for a young player — is that he is very inconsistent. We have given him two very good grades this year, two pretty bad ones, and four that fall somewhere in the middle.

Suh has only put together one game where he’s been strong versus the pass and the run: the Week 3 game vs Minnesota.

Overall, he is much better against the pass than he is against the run, and most people know this. Some will ignore his play against the run when making the case for the great play of Suh in the same way that the blocking of Antonio Gates gets ignored when talking about his play. We’re not fans of that line of thinking. Gates may be comfortably the league’s best receiving TE, and that may be the biggest part of his job, but on 38.5 percent of his snaps this season he has been run-blocking. That’s a very large portion of plays doing something you’re very bad at. Too much for us to ignore and sweep under the carpet.

In Suh’s case, he’s being run at on 40.4 percent of his snaps and generally failing in that aspect of his game. We’ve heard people say that Jim Schwartz just wants to turn Suh loose and to a degree that’s true, but it certainly doesn’t explain it all away.

Albert Haynesworth was a force against the run and pass in the same role in the same D in Tennessee, and Jason Jones is currently our top-ranked DT doing the same thing there now. There are almost a dozen other DTs grading in the green both ways as well. You can see from watching linebackers play when a DT is being given the freedom to ignore a gap and pressure another one, because they will immediately react to fill the hole. Watching Detroit’s linebackers, you don’t see them do this — it’s not in the game plan for Suh to be taken out of his gap.

In other words, you can aggressively get after the passer without giving up on your run responsibilities on every down. The best defensive tackles understand that it is not third-and-long on every play.

LOSING THE SMALL BATTLES

There is a certain type of play that Suh seems to struggle with more than others, and is finding it very tough to recognize and adjust to in the NFL. This type of play accounts for a big portion of his negative grading. When Suh can see the block coming he often handles it OK, but when he is not blocked by the guy straight ahead of him, he is often caught out, driven completely out of his hole and the play, leaving a major gap for the rest of the defense to deal with.

We have a pair of plays that demonstrate this well from earlier this season. It is worth noting that in both of these plays Suh was blocked completely out of the play by just one blocker, freeing up linemen to get through to the second level in one case, or double team Corey Williams in the other case.

The first play came back in Week 2 against the Eagles. Facing second-and-18 from the shotgun, Suh had his ears pinned back. Lined up just outside of the right guard, he failed to recognize that the guard at no point even pretended to block him, instead focusing inside and double teaming Williams. At this point a smart and experienced DT would know something was not right, and would be looking for the block, but Suh was always focused on the ball.

Tearing into the backfield, Suh suddenly found himself face-to-face with left guard Todd Herremans pulling from the other side. Herremans, coming at steam, blew Suh out of the hole, leaving right tackle Winston Justice to get to the second level to pick up a linebacker, and LeSean McCoy was able to run for 13 of the 18 yards needed to pick up the first down (the play was called back on illegal formation).

It was a perfect example of the type of play that a good defensive tackle needs to be able to recognize and react to, especially when he is looking in the backfield from the beginning.

The second play was from Week 1 against the Bears, and is an even simpler variant on blocking up front.

Chicago lines up in a simple I-formation, with Detroit fixed in their base 4-3 D. The Bears are looking to run outside of right tackle, and obviously Suh — shaded outside right guard as he is — has a prime spot from which to disrupt the run.

All Chicago does is down-block from right tackle, hitting Suh from his left side instead of head-up. This allows the right guard to pull around and lead through the hole, sealing inside as he goes through. Suh is so completely surprised that he is being blocked by someone other than the right guard that he is not only sealed off from the play, but moved backwards at the point of attack by Frank Omiyale. This frees up the right guard, and Olin Kreutz the center to get through to the second level and deal with linebackers.

On both occasions the play was designed to go within a yard of Suh’s position, and on both occasions Suh was not only nowhere near the hole at the time the back arrived, but had left such a large hole by the manner in which he was blocked that the potential for a big gain was real.

We’re not saying that every play is like these, and there are plenty of impressive plays against the run in Suh’s game film. But these are the plays that escape people’s notice, the plays that show the weaknesses in his game. As a defensive tackle you have to be responsible for the run as well as the pass, unless you are going to be used purely as a situational rusher, and that isn’t what the Lions are doing with Suh. These plays are popping up repeatedly, and the Lions and Suh need to do a better job of making them stop.

RAW NUMBERS vs. REAL PRODUCTION

Suh’s numbers are certainly impressive. He leads DTs with seven sacks and is second with 24 stops, and that type of production can’t be ignored.

A deeper look softens those numbers a bit. Start with the fact that he’s playing more than any other DT, and thus has more opportunities for success than anyone else. Then go to the fact that he’s gotten sacks on an unusually low number of pressures — seven sacks in 22 total QB disruptions, for a 31.8 percent sack rate. Of our top 10 DT pass-rushers a year ago, the average rate was 12.4 percent.

Suh has rushed the passer 302 times and has 12 pressures, three hits and seven sacks. That’s one pressure in 13.7 rushes. Compare it to a guy like St. Louis’ Fred Robbins, who isn’t exactly rocking the sales-jersey charts. He’s rushed the passer 226 times and gotten 21 pressures (one in 10.8), and has played great run D. But he only has two sacks, and that is the difference between a decent season and the hype machine going into overdrive.

Raw stat production will always trump any green or red numbers we put on a page in terms of getting you recognized. There’s certainly merit in being a finisher, which Suh is — he closes on quarterbacks like a lion on a three-legged zebra. But it shows time and time again in our QB stats that pressure from the pass rush leads to mistakes in the passing game, and those are certainly as important as the odd 8-yard loss.

Suh’s play thus far most closely equates to Houston’s Amobi Okoye, who is generally regarded as a one-dimensional player if not an outright flop. Okoye’s rookie performance was very similar to Suh’s thus far in terms of grading, if not raw production. He then took a major step back in his sophomore effort and is so-so at best this year.

THE FUTURE

Regardless of our general dampening of enthusiasm, the outlook is favorable for No. 90. He’s playing an incredible number of snaps and gaining invaluable experience. Schwartz is a defensive guy, and he’s surrounded Suh with a good group of defensive linemen.

Just because we’re pointing out flaws doesn’t mean we’re not big fans of his ability, potential, and some of his play. Suh is as physically gifted as any defensive tackle in the league, he has massive ability, but he is being caught out by simple blocking tricks that linemen have been using for years. There is no reason a player of his caliber should be so totally unprepared to be blocked by somebody other than the man lined up directly in front of him. He has shown improvement, grading positively against the run the last two weeks against the Redskins and Jets. If that continues, the sky will be the limit.

He certainly has the potential to earn the Defensive Rookie of the Year honor — one that is almost certain to be his regardless of what we might say. There’s just no way that a top pick with big numbers and highlights aplenty is going to fail to win that honor, and that’s just the way it is. We’ll be surprised if he’s not a Pro Bowler, as well.

If Suh were on a better team that had more options on the DL (the Lions’ depth is quite poor), he’d probably be better served in a more situational role, but it makes sense for the Lions to use him on every down. It’s the only way he’ll get better, and even a confused Suh is a better option than a focused Sammie Lee Hill.

We’re just hoping that he starts earning all of his accolades a bit more with well-balanced play as his career goes on. Is that so much to ask?

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Jonathan Comey

    Suuuuuuuuhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

  • jakuvious

    The one aspect of your assessment that I genuinely disagree with, would be discrediting him for the number of snaps he takes. The amount of snaps he plays as a DT is ridiculous. While the amount of snaps he takes makes his numbers seem less impressive, the fact that he doesn’t wear down over the course of the game, and that the Lions CAN have him out there very play of the game, is incredibly impressive. DT is one of the most tiring positions to play in the NFL, if not the most tiring. Haynesworth, who you mention, is notorious for laziness, taking plays off, and having random minor injuries that appear questionable.

    I think that the writers on this site are quite a bit harsher on Suh because of the national spotlight he has, because regardless, for a defensive tackle, as a rookie, he is playing phenomenally, and some of what he’s doing is incredibly impressive. THe discipline, the experience, that will come with time. As it does for any great player.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

    I don’t think we did try and discredit him for the number of snaps he takes. All we are saying is that being on the field for that number of snaps means the amount of times he is rushing the passer is huge, and so you would expect a certain degree of pressure just in terms of sheer volume of pass-rushes. Call it the Joey Porter effect..

  • Neil Hornsby

    The hype for Suh has got to ridiculous proportions. I sometimes wonder how much the infamous sack statistic contributes to all this. Would we be having all the crazy talk if he had no sacks but 30 pressures? I doubt it. The problem is its leading previously reliable people to say crazy things. In the Jets game when Steve Tasker said Suh playing next to Kyle Vanden Bosch was helping improve Kyle’s production this year was that him or his producer? The number of snaps Suh has played at DRT this year? 20!!! They’re simply making stuff up now because it sounds like it might be right.
    [NOTE: of those 20 snaps 6 were running plays and 5 had Turk McBride playing DRE]

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Jonathan Comey

    Why sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all — Julius Peppers has been absolutely fantastic for the Bears, and is probably the No. 1 reason they’re somehow still in the playoff mix. He has two sacks, but has had loads of pressure and is playing great run D. But surely someone will call him a bust if he finishes with 5-7 sacks.

  • 55salaam

    I think there are a few other things to note here. The comment regarding his snaps is absolutely correct. It is easy to say that more opportunities ought to result in more sacks, and in a certain sense, this is true. However, a player who lacked the stamina to contribute as many plays would not necessarily produce more by virtue of his time on the field, simply because his effectiveness would diminish as his time increased. Similarly, an equally well-conditioned player who lacked Suh’s talent level would almost certainly not produce the same number of big-plays simply by seeing more time. In fact, it is exactly Suh’s ability to remain in position to make more plays that makes him so valuable. That he does not wear down and that he remains productive is a testament to his quality, particularly at defensive tackle. Furthermore, comparing Ndamukong Suh to Fred Robbins is not entirely fair, as Robbins is a high-quality veteran player. Suh is a rookie. Traditionally, rookie defensive tackles have had great difficulty transitioning to the NFL, primarily because of the physical toll taken at the professional level. The hype surrounding him may be exaggerated, but what you cannot deny is that his production, at that position, at this stage in his career, is nothing short of exceptional. It simply does not happen very often.

    Unlike most rookies, Suh already has an NFL body, and with another year of weightlifting and experience under his belt, he projects as an excellent player. In the Jets game he drew double teams from two of the league’s best interior linemen (Moore and Mangold) and still managed to get pretty good push against both the run and pass. It was not as productive a game as he has had in the past, but it demonstrated that NFL coordinators, who spend quite a bit of time reviewing tape themselves, have targeted him as a player worthy of special attention. Again, for a rookie defensive tackle, that is very impressive.

    Finally, a note on his being “confused” by pulling guards and trap blocks. That is a patently unfair evaluative term. It is obvious, as you rightly point out, that Suh is responsible for his gap. However, as a former defensive lineman I can tell you that in a “get-off” type of system the emphasis is on an up-field at all costs mentality. Therefore, interior linemen are susceptible to the trap and the cut block. As Suh develops he will learn to “feel” the man in front of him pulling, but it must be noted that teams run traps against this type of defense specifically to catch players who over-penetrate, both by their personal nature and the designs of the defensive scheme. I agree that he must improve with time, but focusing on that as a barometer of his effectiveness misses the overall picture: He commands double teams; He demonstrates great hustle and good hand usage; He gets good upfield penetration and has shown the ability to split the double team; He gets to the quarterback and he takes his man when he gets there. He does these things by playing aggressively and with abandon. Misdirection, pulls, and traps are ways to exploit the same tendencies that have made him effective. He is a developing player, but he flashes dominance. Others may be more consistently O.K. but he has shown a gear that few rookies at his position possess.

    I admit that getting caught in the hype is a dangerous thing as an evaluator, but dismissing a player or, as in this case, undervaluing his contributions and the excellence of his play relative to his position and experience, is equally unfortunate. Also, with regard to him “playing next to” Vanden Bosch, if he draws a double team, it doesn’t matter where he is on the line in relation to Kyle or Avril, they still benefit by securing single match-ups, freeing them up to dictate the angle of approach. This is not just about sacks, it is about presence.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

    I think you’re dramatically overestimating the amount that Suh is ‘drawing’ double teams. Detroit rush just 4 guys almost exclusively, and as such a 5-man O-line is going to double team somebody every single play that happens, and the way they fall, it’s going to be one of the DTs. Very very rarely will a 5-man line double team a defensive end if the opposition is just rushing a base front four.

    Now Corey Williams is seeing a tonne of double teams too, but it’s not because he’s a frightening force that people are game-planning to stop with double teams, it’s just because that’s how the blocking assignment for that play falls.

    Put another way, I’m not convinced Suh is seeing any more double teams than any other DT doing the same things from that system on any given play.

    We’re not saying he’s not an impressive rookie – he is – but equally just because he is capable of big plays doesn’t mean that ignoring large tracts of average or poor play is the way to go either. As you put it ‘flashing dominance’ is not enough for us to get carried away over yet. Gerald McCoy ‘flashes dominance’ too, but he hasn’t put up the sack figures of Suh so nobody cares, because he also puts up a lot of average or poor play.

  • 55salaam

    I don’t think I am dramatically overestimating anything, I am simply stating the fact that in the limited amount of film I have seen, he has been the focus of the double team. To be clear, I did not call him a frightening force, nor did I assert that one must be in order to draw a double team. Also, Corey Williams is an established player in the NFL, so while he isn’t a great player, he does draw a double team based on his demonstrated effectiveness. Furthermore, while it is true that a 5-man line will almost always double down on someone, and then almost certainly on a defensive tackle, it is also true that the off player will usually look to work up the second level. In pass-pro a double is often dictated by the threat an opposing interior lineman (and sometimes a defensive end) poses to the quarterback. From what I have seen, Suh was the most frequent object of the double team in the most recent game against New York. Let me also say, that as a Jaguars fan I am very pleased with what Tyson Alualu has done from his tackle position, but he does not draw nearly the same amount of attention as Terrance Knighton because of the latter’s consistent push as a pass rusher this season. A double team is not an indication of greatness or even effectiveness, but when the tactic is consistently applied by design to one player it becomes significant.

    Now, I think I was not clear enough in my first response: I do not think Suh should go to the Pro Bowl, and I do not think that he is a great player yet. However, there are numerous points in that response, aside from double teams, that are relevant. He is making a major contribution to his team, and Gerald McCoy is not. McCoy does not have an NFL body yet and cannot stand up to the double very well. He is often driven out of the play, though he does have great quickness. He strikes me as more similar to Okoye for many reasons, not the least of which is his lack of great functional strength for the position. Suh is almost never driven out of a play by the man in front of him. That is a major statement about his ability to be successful. Also, it is important to note that every defensive lineman looks average sometimes, especially as a rookie. I haven’t seen nearly as much poor play as you seem to be implying.I think Suh has shown that he can win his match-ups fairly consistently, that he can avoid being manhandled at the point, and that he can finish his opportunities.

    The hype surrounding him may not be justified based solely on his play, but that is not why he is receiving so much attention. As I pointed out before, his effectiveness as a rookie defensive tackle was anything but assured given the history of that position. He was a very high pick and a high profile, physically dominant (and that is what continues to separate him from Gerald McCoy) college player. Now, the NFL, for better or worse, is obsessed with the quarterback and the passing game, making the sack the premier defensive statistic. Suh has 6.5 at midseason from an interior line position. That is an extremely high number, and therefore he is receiving tremendous amounts of attention. That is simply the way of things in the league: high profile rookies who are successful will be given way too much attention. I am sure you are aware of this, but I just want to point out no one is saying he is the best defensive tackle in the game.

    In fact, I agree with the overwhelming majority of your article, I just feel it necessary to point out a few things.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Ben Stockwell

    We looked into the frequency of double teams in the off-season to see if it was something we needed to take into account in our normalisation process for defensive linemen and simply put for both defensive ends & defensive tackles in the run & pass games it was a non-factor. We found that personnel weren’t targeted for double teams more than it was dictated by scheme and the position & alignment a player played in. I can’t go into numbers because I don’t have them at the moment but suffice to say an off-season study was undertaken that proved to us that personnel were not being explicitly targeted for double teams as part of a gameplan and we’re suitably confident that Ndamukong Suh, as impressive an athlete and prospect as he is, hasn’t changed the game that teams are suddenly going to start doing this.

  • 55salaam

    That you all would take the time to conduct such a study is quite impressive. However, I can assure you that in certain situations premier defensive players are targeted for extra attention. More productive and convincing would be a study of offensive coordinators and their playbooks, not to mention team meetings and coaching discussions. I understand of course that this is impossible, but studying tape and providing numerical data does not prove anything, though it does provide wonderfully informative data. You may be correct that the observed tendencies indicate that no special attention is devoted to particularly disruptive players, though how you would quantify that convincingly I do not know. For instance, you are not going to double a back-side tackle no matter how good he is, but that does not change the fact that certain players dictate blocking schemes on certain plays.

    Of course a double team block is a part of certain plays out of certain formations against certain defensive alignments. That is undoubtedly a fact. But there are situations where personnel will dictate minor scheme changes. There are also situations where a type of play is run – and thereby a certain blocking scheme employed – that directs a double team toward the player that poses the greatest threat. In such a scenario, the scheme has not been altered, the play-calling has. This is also a fact, and one that should simply be accepted. Now, I am not saying, nor have I said, that Ndamukong Suh dictates an entire offensive game-plan. I simply said he is sometimes given special attention because he is a recognized threat. How do you explain leaving an extra player in to block a dominant end? Surely you concede that tackles who present match-up problems are given extra attention?

    Your study, no matter how comprehensive and thoroughly conducted, is simply not enough to make a pronouncement regarding the game-day planning of NFL coaches. I think it probably has great merit, and I think that in many cases you are correct, but to say that it simply does not happen is a bit overzealous. You need to talk to someone who knows, not rely on guesswork, no matter how well planned and thought out.

    I have great respect for your team and all the work you do, which is why I am engaging in this discussion. However, your methods are not above reproach, and instead of feeding me truisms such as, “we’re suitably confident that Ndamukong Suh, as impressive an athlete and prospect as he is, hasn’t changed the game” which is of course obvious and unnecessary to state, perhaps you should consider that you are not an expert, well-informed though you may be, that this discussion is by its very nature a discussion of non-experts, and therefore nothing stated is beyond dispute.
    Respectfully, I disagree.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Jonathan Comey

    good discussion salaam — much better than you find on most sites, where the best of comments is “You guys blow!”