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FAB 1. Suh Spearheads Bucs’ Stellar Run Defense
Ndamukong Suh’s stat line isn’t pretty.
Through four games, the Bucs’ 30-year old defensive tackle has seven tackles, one tackle for loss, three quarterback hits and no sacks.
Outside of a team-high two fumble recoveries, including a 37-yard scoop-and-score against his former team, the Los Angeles Rams, on Sunday, Suh doesn’t look like he’s coming close to earning his $9.25 million salary this season as Gerald McCoy’s replacement up front.
Until you notice that the Bucs run defense, which was ranked 24th last year while surrendering 123.9 yards per game, is currently ranked first in the league and is allowing just 59.2 yards per game. That’s where Suh comes in to play.
Outside of his 37-yard touchdown in L.A., there isn’t much to Suh’s game that is pretty.
Instead, it’s gritty and often goes unnoticed.
“There is a lot of stuff that Suh does that doesn’t end up on a stats sheet,” Bucs inside linebacker Lavonte David said. “He accounts for multiple blockers and allow myself and guys on the outside to run free and make plays against the run or get sacks. A lot of things he does people have to account for. His name – Ndamukong Suh – obviously means you have to account for him. He can dominate a game and not really show up on the stat sheet. His leadership and the role he plays upfront is real good for us. Those guys need a leader who is savvy, who knows the game and who is a seasoned vet.
“His presence is a big plus. He’s a no-nonsense guy. When we’re going through drills in practice he’ll say things like, ‘Don’t let anybody run through this defense.’ And he means it. Our mentality started in practice a long time ago. When it’s our period and our starting defense is out there in practice, we dominate the period. He helps set the tone. The whole defensive front sets the tone, but Suh makes it a point of emphasis.”
Things like setting the tone, mentality, momentum, heart and grit aren’t measured on the stat sheet or in analytics, but they are real elements of football and within football players, especially those that operate in the trenches.
“The defensive line, and Suh specifically, have done a phenomenal job of knocking the line of scrimmage back, and that’s an emphasis we have as an offensive line, right? To move the line of scrimmage forward and get yards,” Bucs left guard Ali Marpet said. “Teams are struggling to do that against us because of Suh and the rest of our defensive line. That doesn’t show up on the stats sheet, but has tremendous value.”
There were several reasons why the Bucs wanted to swap Suh for McCoy, who had six Pro Bowl berths in nine years in Tampa Bay, this offseason. The first was that Suh had more experience in a 3-4 defense and was deemed to be a better fit for Todd Bowles’ scheme. The second reason was that Suh was a better run-stopper and so far that’s been where his value is. But the final reason is that Suh brought a level of toughness and aggressiveness that McCoy lacked, according to the front office and coaches.
With a young, emerging player like nose tackle Vita Vea, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2018, needing some coaxing to become more aggressive from general manager Jason Licht midway through his rookie season, the Bucs thought having an aggressive player like Suh on the team would help show Vea the way.
“I’ve learned a lot from watching him play,” Vea said of Suh. “He’s all about his business. He’s a real professional and I’ve learned a lot from him on and off the field. He gets a lot of double teams for us. He does a lot of the dirty work and I get a lot of the one-on-ones because of him. Obviously they are going to double Suh before they double me.
“A player like that to show up like he did last week – he had nothing to prove because he already has his resume – it was great to see. Suh’s scored before, so it was nothing new to him, but it was exciting for me to see him score and seal the game. The fact he did it against his old team was really cool.”
Vea isn’t the only young Bucs defensive lineman that is benefitting from the addition of Suh to Tampa Bay’s roster. Rakeem “Nacho” Nunez-Roches had a remarkable preseason with two sacks and says that Suh has helped him ratchet up his own nastiness.
“That’s one of his key characteristics – he’s a nasty guy,” Nunez-Roches said. “The one thing I always compliment Ndamukong on is that he’s efficient. His presence out there and his knowledge of the game, that’s what makes him so feared. When it’s time to make plays he knows when it’s time to dig deep and come up big. He did that in L.A. for us.”
Suh is known as a nasty player, but he’s only living up to his name. Suh’s first name – Ndamukong – means “house of spears” in the Ngemba of Cameroon, which is where his ancestry is traced to. Suh spearheaded some big plays against the Rams, which was the team he played for last year, just as he has spearheaded Tampa Bay’s run defense this year.
Suh finished with two tackles, two quarterback hits and one big fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Rams, but it was the big, 6-foot-4, 313-pounder chasing Rams speed receiver Brandin Cooks 23 yards downfield after a catch to make the tackle that really stood out to safety Jordan Whitehead.
“He’s a hustle guy and you saw it on that play,” Whitehead said. “And you saw his speed when he picked up that fumble, too. He’s got some speed. All of our guys upfront – Suh, Vita [Vea], Will [Gholston] – do a great job of getting to the ball. Suh doesn’t really say a lot, but he’s that guy that plugs the middle and takes on double teams. He can make plays like he made on Sunday when they count the most. That’s his game. He’s quiet. Then he can make a play that sparks us. He doesn’t get all the credit because he does all the dirty work and takes on two guys a lot of the time.”
Tampa Bay would love to see Suh get to the quarterback and join Shaq Barrett, Carl Nassib and Will Gholston as the only Buccaneers to collect sacks so far this year. Perhaps that happens in New Orleans this week where Tampa Bay will be facing backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater rather than injured starter Drew Brees. Saints head coach Sean Payton battled against Suh twice last year, including in the NFC Championship Game.
“He’s at the three-technique position which I think is home [for him] and the position he’s comfortable with because of the isolations he gets,” Payton said. “He’s explosive. He’s smart. He’s a very intelligent player. He can edge you quick and he can win with power. He’s been a great addition for them.”
While McCoy’s smile kept the Bucs’ locker room light and upbeat for years – even during double-digit losing seasons, Suh rarely smiles and is all business. He demands a workman-like approach from all defenders on the practice field with his intense demeanor and it’s showing up on Sunday’s in Tampa Bay’s stellar run defense.
“He brings experience and he doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s usually very important and we listen,” said Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. “He brings leadership and all of those things that a 10-year vet would bring. He’s definitely a no-nonsense guy.”
Suh sets the tone and does the dirty work on defense, and as the Bucs’ 2019 season goes along, his stats sheet will continue to fill out.
“A lot of pressure,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians when asked what Suh brings to Tampa Bay. “The quarterbacks feel him. He might not be getting home, but he’s occupying a lot of double teams, and when he is one-on-one, he’s getting close. In the run game, he’s just shutting it down.”