My general rule in covering football is to trust what I see. Sometimes this game can be made more complicated than it is. So if you're like me, you walked away from Sunday's game at the Metrodome convinced that Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh hadn't made much of an impact in the Minnesota Vikings' 34-24 victory.
The box score supported that conclusion: Suh was credited with one tackle, on the final possession of the game, and the rest of his line was filled with zeroes.
So I couldn't have been more surprised to hear Lions coach Jim Schwartz make this observation during his Monday news conference: "I thought Ndamukong Suh might have played the best game since he's been here."
Really? Better than the two-sack, one-touchdown performance against the Washington Redskins in 2010? What about the dominating game he had against the Miami Dolphins that season, which he helped control with five solo tackles, a sack, a batted-down pass and a forced fumble?
In defending Suh's performance over the past season and a half, Schwartz has routinely noted that statistics can't possibly provide a full picture of a defensive lineman's play. A cynic would wonder if Schwartz was merely thrusting an unassailable blanket over a supposed difference-maker who has managed 7.5 sacks and a total of 50 tackles in his past 23 games. It would seem easy to hide behind an "unheralded contributions" argument.
This time, I was intrigued. Schwartz isn't the first coach to make such an assertion. So Tuesday morning, I took a second look at the game, and with an admittedly amateur eye, I watched Suh on all 64 plays he was on the field for.
The results were enlightening. I jotted down 11 plays where something Suh did -- stand up to a block, get penetration, push back an offensive lineman -- scuttled the Vikings' attempts to gain yards. Most of those instances came after the Vikings had established a 10-0 lead, but I still consider them to be a relatively strong total considering the Vikings double-teamed him on nearly a third of his total plays.
My strong feeling remains that we shouldn't lower our standards for, or expectations of, Suh on a weekly basis. He isn't just a defensive lineman who is asked to do his job and fill a role. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, an athletic freak who was a weekly difference maker as a rookie and one who seems talented enough to make game-changing plays more often than he is these days.
With that said, here is a sampling of the positive plays Suh made that most of us wouldn't notice unless we were watching him from start to finish:
Suh pressured Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder on two screen passes that fell incomplete. On such plays, offensive linemen allow defenders to penetrate to help clear out running room for the receiver. Most defensive linemen aren't fast enough to disrupt the play, but Suh did it twice. On the first instance, his raised hands might have contributed to tailback Adrian Peterson dropping the ball. On the other, he forced Ponder to throw before the play was even set up.
Ponder had only eight incompletions in the game. Two were those screen passes, and two others came when Suh's penetration forced either a quick or poor throw. Suh pushed right tackle Phil Loadholt into Ponder on one of those passes, and his pressure against a double team caused another incompletion on a pass intended for receiver Jarius Wright. On another pressure, Ponder was forced to dump a pass to Peterson for no gain.
In the third quarter, Suh stood up a trap block from tight end Rhett Ellison. Peterson slipped and fell when he tried to redirect around Ellison. He did not gain a yard on the play.
Of course, this type of inspection can reveal the unseen warts as well as the pleasant surprises. In the second quarter, Suh was driven out of what appeared to be his gap on single blocks by Vikings offensive linemen, opening an interior hole for runs of 15 and 14 yards. (I use "appeared" to acknowledge the inherent danger of assuming what a defender's assignment is.) Meanwhile, Suh was put on his back by Vikings right guard Brandon Fusco (with some help from center John Sullivan) on Peterson's two-point conversion in the fourth quarter.
Schwartz said Monday that "unless they doubled [Suh] in pass protection, he was in the quarterback’s lap the whole game." That wasn't literally the case, but there is no doubt Suh had an impact beyond the one tackle he received credit for in the box score.
Again, I considered this exercise an inexact but informative measure of context rather than total vindication for Suh. It shouldn't be that hard to identify the production of a superstar. Call me crazy, but I think it's fair to expect a steady diet of game-changing plays on top of the weekly anonymous mashing that Schwartz noted. Your thoughts?