Too bad pro football isn't a street fight.
So even with the NFL’s so-called dirtiest player in Ndamukong Suh, the Lions still managed to fall below .500 nine games into the season. What a shame. Not exactly shocking, but shameful if you look at the disappointment Suh’s become since he got to the league in 2010.
His peers tagged him with “dirtiest player” for the second year in a row, despite him having a relatively mild record in penalties and no fines so far this season. Suh’s deliberate, sometimes over-the-top takedowns, like when he body-slammed Jay Cutler a few weeks ago, are part of his steez.
But what’s being overlooked when it comes to the third-year pro out of Nebraska is the lack of a meaningful progression as a football player. That’s what no one outside of Motown is discussing – how the Lions have this intimidating, menacing figure that does more intimidating than sacking/stopping.
He’s like Kimbo Slice at this point. If you’re a pro, you don’t mind going at him in the ring (a violent, but somewhat controlled environment like the football field), but you want no parts of him in a street fight. The more rules, the more structure, the less he can hurt you.
For all of the chatter about Suh’s dirty play, here’s something a little more interesting: no one is calling this dude out for being a bust, or at the least just playing like one for now. A couple of days before the Vikings game, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was asked about Suh’s play this season and went with this:
"He's had sacks, affected the passwe and obviously been good-run defender for us. During the season we had given up a lot of big plays. Recently, last couple games particularly we haven't given up big plays. A lot of that's from our pass rush and guys like Ndamukong Suh. It doesn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but when the ball comes out quick and our defense is able to play balls in front of them and tackle, that's the only thing that's important.”
Not buying it. For one, Suh isn’t doing much tackling. And it’s not like it’s just Suh is the only one here. Scroll through the league’s top defensive linemen in tackling and you won’t find a Lions player until Kyle Vanden Bosch at No. 46. Before Sunday, you wouldn’t have found one in the top 50. None of them are tackling at high rates, nor do they rank very high in other statistical categories.
Maybe you look at linebackers Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch having success this season and attribute some of it to Suh creating opportunities, making the other guys better. Even if that’s true, though, no way it’s enough. And it damn sure ain’t enough if they’re a long shot to make the playoffs, sitting at 4-5 in a division with the Bears and Packers.
In Detroit’s loss Sunday to the Vikings, Suh put in just one tackle, which wasn’t anything strange if you consider the fact that the former No. 2 overall pick hasn’t tackled more than twice in a game all season. He even challenged the official record that he didn’t log a single tackle against the Jaguars.
Fourteen tackles in nine games? Nah, Suh. These dudes need more from you.
He can be choir boy from here on out, but name and reputation sticks unless the conversation changes. And let’s face it, Suh ain’t the choir boy, especially on the field.
The perception is that he plays mad and out of control, consistent with the way the Lions have been characterized, lately. We all know about his history of hits on Cutler. Can’t forget him putting his cleat on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith last Thanksgiving, and his immediate reaction to stomping on the dude, acting like he didn’t do it on purpose, and edging the premise that he’s on the maniacal side.
This view that Suh is dangerous and out to hurt somebody has to play into the way he’s evaluated as a player. If the focus stays on how dirty Suh is, he’ll stay relevant even if he’s not playing well. To a fault, it might even play to his advantage.
Suh’s got his opponents psyched out if they go into games looking minding his dirty play, as opposed to figuring out his weaknesses and exploiting them. It would be conceding the edge he’s looking for.
Remember, Suh doesn’t see himself as dirty and would likely scoff at the notion. That’s just one way to respond, though.
During Texans training camp, when there was talk of their defense being pegged with the same term in 2011, Connor Barwin said “that’s almost a compliment when teams say you’re dirty when you know you’re not.”
Whether you trust young Kimbo to do the right thing or not, you can’t ignore his regression. In that 2009 season when he lost the Heisman to Mark Ingram, Suh had all kinds of buzz because the man was a defensive line by himself. No, seriously. He had just as many tackles for loss as the entire Alabama defensive line that year. He had more quarterback hurries than both Alabama and Texas, while he broke up more passes than Bama, Texas and Florida’s d-line.
Suh made it to the league and was supposed to be part of the Lions’ transformation, since they already had the Stafford-Johnson connection. He was supposed to be a Warren Sapp-like impact player, immediately ready for the pro game. Save that, though. The rookie season was nice – 66 tackles and 10 sacks. Let’s call last year the sophomore slump (36 tackles, four sacks).
But with the Lions making the playoffs for the first time since ’99, followed by an offseason where they could have sponsored bail bondsmen commercials, it’s been easy to talk over the fact that the franchise player on defense is pretty much just another guy at the line of scrimmage. Suh’s yet to become the player that his rep led us to believe he would and he’s damn near close to the opposite.