The 2012 NFL season is full of candidates for the comeback player of the year, with several players stepping back onto the field after major injuries to dominate like they never left. No comeback is more impressive than that of Terrell Suggs, who tore his Achilles tendon around the draft, and this week stepped back onto the field against the best team in the AFC just six months later.
Suggs didn’t just get a token run out to ease his way back into things — he played 44 snaps, notched himself a sack, a knockdown, a hurry and a batted pass. Essentially, Suggs dominated like he had never been missing, and his return comes just at the point when the Ravens need him the most.
The absence of Suggs has led a lot of people to try and evaluate exactly what he brings to the team, and the answer is a pretty unique blend of strength and speed, both of which were on display in this game. Let’s take a look at how he used each to impact the game, a game in which he looked at times like the only member of the Ravens’ defense interested in winning.
Speed – Baltimore @ Houston | 1st Q, 7:51
On 1st-and-10 Terrell Suggs beats RT Derek Newton to the inside to sack QB Matt Schaub for an 8-yard loss.
The Houston Texans are all about play action. They are at their best when they are able to run the ball and suck the defense up to stop it, before hitting them deep over the top with the play action passing game. The other thing that strategy does is cause defenders to pause a little in their rush to diagnose exactly what the play is before they can turn their attention to shutting it down. Suggs is lined up at LOLB in a 3-4 front on this play, and the Texans have set up in a run formation, with two tight ends to the other side of the line and a pair of receivers split out to Suggs’ side. At the snap RT Derek Newton opens laterally, causing Suggs to match his movement so that he can set the edge in case of a stretch play to that side of the field. Suggs is one of the best run defenders in the NFL, and initial movement like this is part of the reason why.
The play action fake to Arian Foster is good enough that Haloti Ngata simply makes a bee line straight for him through the right guard, and comes just shy of tackling him once he realizes he doesn’t have the football. That movement from Ngata clears a path to the inside of Newton, and Suggs takes a hard step back inside before powering straight ahead toward the quarterback. The speed with which he makes this move leaves the right tackle with no chance, and Suggs closes the 5 yards between himself and Schaub before the quarterback can even wind up to throw his intended deep pass. He may not look like Von Miller, but Suggs has underrated quickness for a player built like he is, and it is evident on this play even after an extended layoff and a serious injury.
Power – Baltimore @ Houston | 1st Q, 1:16
On 2nd-and-5 Terrell Suggs beats LT Duane Brown to the inside and pressures Schaub, who is able to buy just enough time to complete a short pass before being taken to the ground.
This play is Suggs at his best. Dwight Freeney‘s signature move was always his inside spin that would devastate left tackles, and this is Suggs’ version of the same principle. As we saw before, Suggs has the kind of speed that needs to be respected. He can force an offensive tackle to move backward to counter that speed and over compensate, giving up the inside to a move back underneath. Freeney used his speed to exploit this gap with a spin, but Suggs uses strength instead.
Again Suggs lines up at OLB in the 3-4, this time on the right side against Duane Brown, arguably the best LT in the game right now after developing impressively throughout his career. Houston motions the tight end to the far side of the line leaving Suggs one-on-one with Brown on the blind side. Matt Schaub takes a five-step drop and Suggs heads up field as if he is going to try and beat Brown on a speed rush around the edge. Again, Suggs gets an assist from Haloti Ngata who takes a hard outside rush against LG Wade Smith — who does well to guide him past the path of the quarterback. Though Smith does a good job on Ngata, this opens up a huge gap between Brown at LT and Chris Myers at C.
Whether Suggs notices this early or had planned to play it this way all along is unclear, but when he is 5 yards into the backfield, and Schaub has hit the top of his drop, Suggs simply tosses Brown to the side, using his own retreating momentum against him, and breaks inside where he has a clear lateral path to the quarterback. The only thing saving this from being another sack is that Schaub feels the pressure early and takes off to right field, buying just enough time for Andre Johnson to work his way back open for a desperation pass. He gets the pass away as he is being taken to the ground by Suggs for a knockdown.
Suggs has enough speed that Brown has to respect the outside rush, but he has the kind of strength and power that when he decides to come inside he simply tosses Brown to the ground and has open space in front of him. The fact that Suggs is able to do this to a player as good as Brown in his first game back shows his ability to dominate against anybody.
Both – Baltimore @ Houston | 3rd Q, 3:00
On 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line Terrell Suggs beats his man to the inside and narrowly fails to prevent the touchdown.
It might seem an unusual play to highlight Suggs’ dominance in the run game, given that the Texans actually scored on the play, but Suggs almost single-handedly blew it up — it is a play that would have saved a touchdown, but for the interjection of another pair of bodies. It’s a goal-line run so both Houston and Baltimore are lined up in heavy formations ready to do battle at the line of scrimmage. Suggs has his hand in the ground as a defensive end in a six-man D-line, and he’s lined up just outside of OT Ryan Harris. Suggs immediately beats Harris to the inside with a quick move and is able to drive through the gap with his outside shoulder, ensuring with pure power that Harris can’t recover.
As you can see from the image, Suggs is through the line and has a clear path to the running back, but he gets taken out of the play by a block coming from the middle of the field. The picture also shows that the rest of the left side of the line, Brown and Smith, are dominating their blocks, and by the time Foster crosses the line they have their defenders 3 yards deep in the end zone. Ironically enough, this space would actually have aided Suggs, but it has another side effect which is what prevents him from making the play. If the pair hadn’t generated much movement at the line they would have contained the block of C Chris Myers on Bryan Hall, but with nothing to prevent lateral movement Hall is able to take Myers across the formation and that block actually cuts off the path of Suggs to the football.
Foster is able to use the block of Myers to angle back slightly to the inside and evade the pursuit of Suggs, who finds himself unable to maneuver around Myers and get enough of the running back to bring him down.
A lot of people talked about how the Ravens miss the pass rush from Suggs, and though they unquestionably do, he is comfortably their best run defender as well. You can’t block Suggs with a player who isn’t an offensive lineman. He is too strong to be dealt with by backs or tight ends and will simply throw them aside on his way to making the stop. The Texans actually did what you would want them to do, and lined up an extra offensive tackle to Suggs’ side — and not a bad one at that — but Suggs still beat him with a combination of speed and power as if he wasn’t even there.
Though he got a bit of an assist from his teammates in the first two plays we looked at, the play from his teammate on this occasion actually stops Suggs from making a great play and keeping a touchdown off the board. On a goal-line dive Suggs beat his man so conclusively that he was in position to make a tackle a yard behind the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens will be thankful to have Suggs back for his pass rush, but he’ll make a huge impact to their ailing run defense as well. He is the complete package at defensive end, with the intelligence, quickness and strength to make plays in a variety of ways.