Commentary

Lions top list of most feared players

Given dominating presence of Suh and Johnson, Detroit should have won more

Originally Published: January 9, 2014
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

They are feared for vastly different reasons.

One is so sleek, so swift, so sure-handed that he can snatch any football out of the air and make a play. Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the National Football League. He is impossible to cover, a beast to bring down, a man who at 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds almost always has a size advantage over whichever poor defensive back is trying to cover him.

The other is so strong, so relentless, so sure-footed that he can bull-rush into the backfield and terrorize quarterbacks. Ndamukong Suh is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. Like Johnson, he is a handful to cover one-on-one, difficult to chip, a man who at 6-4 and 307 pounds has the size and speed to disrupt whichever quarterback he faces.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Harry How/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh's ability to get to the quarterback can turn around a game.
Suh and Johnson finished first and second in ESPN.com's query of 320 players across the league asking which player is the most feared in the NFL. Suh received 61 votes (19 percent). Johnson received 58 votes. The next five vote-getters: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (24), San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis (23), Denver quarterback Peyton Manning (21), Cincinnati linebacker James Harrison (18) and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson (16).

Detroit has the two most feared players in the league and still couldn't take control of the NFC North this season when Green Bay and Chicago were without their starting quarterbacks, and that's a sin. The Lions should have been better. They should have won the division. They should have cruised into the playoffs.

They should have seized the opportunity, but they did not. As a result, they wasted yet another chance to succeed with the two most feared players in the league on their roster.

Suh and Johnson are as different as two men could be. Suh is affable, open, likes to talk and enjoys the attention his fame brings him. Johnson is quiet, reserved and private.

While they are feared for different reasons -- Johnson for his ability to make difficult catches no matter the coverage, Suh for his ability to go after the quarterback -- there is a unifying theme. Both players can change the trajectory of a game. Both can dominate.

Johnson did that against Dallas in Week 8. Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin opted to use cornerback Brandon Carr in single coverage for much of the game, and Johnson lit up the Cowboys. He caught 14 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown and fell 8 yards shy of breaking the NFL's single-game record for receiving yardage, held by the Los Angeles Rams' Flipper Anderson.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiCalvin Johnson nearly set an NFL record in a comeback win over Dallas.
Johnson had catches of 87, 54, 29, 26, 22, 21 and 18 yards. With 1:02 left, the Lions needed to go 80 yards for a touchdown to win the game. Matthew Stafford connected with Johnson twice, once deep over the middle for 17 yards, then down the seam for 22 yards to the Dallas 1-yard line. Stafford ran a quarterback sneak on the next play to give Detroit the one-point victory after having trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Just as Johnson dominated the Cowboys, Suh dominated Chicago in Week 4. Suh harassed Bears quarterback Jay Cutler all game, sacking him twice and hurrying him two other times. In the third quarter, with Detroit leading 30-16, Stafford threw a low pass to Johnson that Johnson inadvertently kicked into the air and Bears safety Major Wright picked off. Three plays later, Suh sacked Cutler for the second time, stripping the ball. Fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley returned the fumble 4 yards for a touchdown.

Another of Suh's characteristics is unpredictability, and in this he differs from Johnson. As dominant as he can be, Suh also has a history of dirty plays. The NFL has fined him eight times in his four-year career, including three times this season for $139,375.

In the Lions' season opener against Minnesota, Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy returned an interception for a touchdown. It was negated by a penalty on Suh for an illegal low block on Vikings center John Sullivan, who was well behind the play. The league popped Suh, considered a repeat offender, for $100,000 for the block.

There is good Suh and there is bad Suh, and even though the man himself wants to change his reputation as a dirty player, you're never sure when bad Suh will show up.

But the Lions' 2013 season will not be remembered for Suh's dogged pursuit of quarterbacks or for his improvement against the run. It won't be remembered for Johnson's marvelous catches or for his near-record day against the Cowboys.

No, it will be remembered for that brutal six-week stretch when Detroit went from leading the NFC North to being eliminated from playoff contention, wasting stellar seasons by the two most feared players in the league.

Ndamukong SuhESPN The Magazine Graphic

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