In the spring of 2010, the Detroit Lions thought Ndamukong Suh was the best defensive player in the draft, taking him second overall after quarterback Sam Bradford went first. Nine-and-a-half years later, Suh is coming back to Detroit and the Lions still think of him as an incredible defensive force.
As reported by the Detroit Free Press, standout Lions center Frank Ragnow noted Suh's "freaky athleticism, freaky strength" and Detroit Head Coach Matt Patricia predicted that the former Lions All-Pro would be "extremely fired up to come here and play." That certainly may be true, but Suh bears no ill will towards the organization with which he played his first five seasons, earning four Pro Bowl berths.
"I love the city, it's as simple as that," said Suh. "Great people there, always showed me love, even when I'm there in the offseason. I always appreciate the city and the fans."
Of course, Suh and his fellow defenders will bear some ill will towards their foes when they hit the turf at Ford Field on Sunday, and the Buccaneers' defensive front has been a major part of the team's success in recent weeks. Suh has returned to Detroit as an opponent one other time, in last year's 30-16 win by the Los Angeles Rams in early December, a game in which he contributed six tackles and two quarterback hits. This time, he wants his group up front to be a key factor again.
Suh said he appreciates how hard that Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles and Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers pushes the D-Line, and how much the coaches put on their broad shoulders.
"I think the best defensive linemen, players really in any profession, want to be coached hard and we take it to heart," said Suh. "He expects a lot out of us so we expect a lot out of ourselves to always be a factor in the game. We expect to be that in this particular game as we look at the game plan and what they're expecting of us."
Suh had 57.5 sacks and 98 quarterback hits during his five years in Detroit as one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the league. He had another 15.5 sacks and 49 QB hits in three seasons with the Miami Dolphins, plus 4.5 and 19 last year. It might appear as if his game has faded a little bit this year with a quick glance at the stats – 1.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits – but his coaches have praised him throughout the year. Suh is frequently double-teamed, and that attention he draws helps all those around him.
"It's something I'm used to, something I've always prided myself on, having to be accounted for," he said. "Truthfully, I look at it as a sign of respect. At the same time, I've got to continue to find ways to beat double teams and free up my teammates."
It's working. The Buccaneers have the best run defense in the league, which starts with Suh and the 347-pound Vita Vea up front. And the pass-rush has generated 12 sacks over the last three games, all victories. Tampa Bay Head Coach Bruce Arians said last week that Suh has been playing "lights-out" all year but especially in the last month or so. That's a function of his unwavering work ethic and desire to be great.
"You see a lot of guys that have been in the league for a while and only do things one way, but he learns, he works hard, he wants to be better every day," said Bowles. "You challenge him mentally, he challenges you mentally and it makes you want to be a better coach because he wants to be a better player."
Bowles loves the way that Suh still gets into the backfield despite all the special teams, but he particularly appreciates how much the veteran lineman has done to improve the play of those around him.
"He's been unbelievable since he came here," said the coach. "I didn't know how intelligent of a player he was, not having been around him. Between him and Beau [Allen] in that D-Line room, helping out the other D-Linemen, I think it's been extraordinary from a help standpoint. Him understanding blocking schemes and taking up double teams and being able to move across the line of scrimmage has helped us a great deal."
Suh was a force of nature when he left Nebraska for Motown nearly a decade ago and, according to the Lions team he's preparing to play now, he still is. He enjoys returning to his original NFL home, and in this case he would enjoy it a lot more if he could help his team to a fourth straight victory, especially if it's him and the defensive line leading the way.