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.
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?