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03 Nov 2010

Cover-2: Rise and Fall

by Doug Farrar

The Rise: Ndamukong Suh

It's been just over a month since I last examined Detroit Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's on-field efforts. It's unusual for this column to double back so soon, but enough has happened in that time to make revisiting a necessity. The Suh I profiled in late September was still struggling a bit with larger offensive linemen -- the types of players he couldn't just push around as he so often did to the unfortunate individuals he lined up against in college. Suh brought an estimable sense of technique to the NFL; he's not just a brawler. But against the Eagles' bigger and less mobile interior offensive line, he had to come up with some alternate ideas to be effective. He held his own, but he wasn't yet a dominant force at the NFL level. Certainly an understandable adjustment.

However, in the last month, Suh has taken that adjustment to light speed and his game to an entirely different level. In his last four games, Suh has picked up 4.5 of his 6.5 sacks on the season, and has everybody talking. He's on pace to have one of those Keith Millard/Warren Sapp seasons; any 10-plus seasonal sack total from a defensive tackle is always worth a closer look as it's happening. With that in mind, I wanted to see what he was up to against the Washington Redskins last Sunday.

Two things I noticed right off the bat: The double teams on Suh were immediate, from the first play of the game, and Suh would occasionally line up at a slight angle that looked a lot like the "Stunt 4-3" Joe Greene invented. In the stunt, Greene would slant his body to as much as a 45-degree angle at the line. This was and is a great way to get a jump on blocks, especially for a man of his burst and quickness (Minnesota's Pat Williams used it in the season opener against the Saints). Greg Cosell and I talked about it in last week's podcast, and I mentioned before the season started that Suh and the Stunt 4-3 could be a lethal combination.

On that first play, the Redskins showed that their plan of attack was to use Suh's furious momentum against him and slide him out of pressure. This worked early on, when right guard Artis Hicks and right tackle Stephon Heyer managed to negate Suh's angle by going in the same direction.

On the second play from scrimmage, the Lions did something with Suh that I really liked, and something I wanted to see him do more at Nebraska -- they went with a three-man rush, with Suh at right end and Corey Williams at the nose. Suh played it in a flex position, a little bit off the line, and was actually triple-teamed on this play. Rabach slipped off Williams to help left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and left tackle Trent Williams with Suh after initially taking Corey Williams' charge. It was absolutely obvious that Suh, a rookie playing in his seventh regular-season game, was the Redskins' focus.

On the third play, Suh made a key stop with his freakish open-field pursuit speed. This was something I noticed in the Eagles game and in the Big 12 Championship game against Texas. In this case, he tracked down running back Keiland Williams on a screen with two blockers downfield. Williams may have had some space downfield on third-and-19, but that didn't matter. Suh is excellent when he has to catch up with runners trying to make plays. He's surprisingly smooth in his turns, and he gets up to top speed very quickly for a man his size.

And then, the topper -- the three-play sequence in the second quarter in which Suh got to McNabb twice. Tied 7-7 with eight minutes left in the first half, the Redskins had first-and-10 at their own 24. As Rabach and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger double-teamed Williams from a one-technique position, Suh was left with Hicks one-on-one. You can probably guess how that went. Hicks got his arms out to pass-protect, and Suh put Hicks' arms out of the way with a quick rip move and darted into the backfield to take McNabb down. The best move on this play, though, was the little head-fake to the left that Suh gave Hicks before moving inside. It was a great example of how his technique is meeting his strength, speed, and raw ability, bit by bit.

Figure 1: Suh Sack

Then, on third-and 13 with 6:44 left in the half, the Lions lined up in a more interesting formation (Fig. 1): Suh at right defensive end, Williams right over center, Cliff Avril (92) at left end, and Kyle Vanden Bosch (93) flexed a yard back in what almost looked like a blitzing linebacker setup. In addition, Suh had his hand off the ground. At the snap, Suh ripped through the blocking efforts of left tackle Trent Williams and running back Keiland Williams and took McNabb down again from a shotgun set. There was another nifty move here -- pre-snap, Suh moved from outside Williams' left shoulder to the gap between Williams and Lichtensteiger. When Lichtensteiger down-blocked to help Rabach with Corey Williams, Suh had his opening. The X-factor on this play -- the amazing aspect of the success -- was Suh's speed. When he's blasting through a gap outside, you forget that he's 310 pounds; he doesn't look all that different than a bigger defensive end, or a Justin Tuck-style hybrid player designed for speed rushes who weighs 30 pounds fewer.

The Lions have learned that setting Suh to disrupt quarterbacks by any means necessary makes a great deal of sense. Through Week 8, Suh leads all defensive linemen in the league in Pass Plays (15) and Pass Defeats (11). He's tied with Titans end David Ball with 13 Pass Successes, also tops in the league. This is a guy who's been a full-time difference maker from Day 1 -- no rotational stuff here. Suh has been involved in 28 Plays, which ranks sixth at his position. Suh has more sacks in his last four games than any other defensive tackle has on the entire season -- Idonije has 4.5, but from right end. The last defensive tackle to grab this many sacks in October was Warren Sapp in 2005, and the last rookie to do it was John Henderson in 2002.

It's easy enough to see Suh's play as a series of highlights. His superlative play lends itself easily to that. But the real value is emerging. In different formations and situations, Suh has become that rare do-it-all player with no discernible weakness. Hyperbole from me? Not a bit. Here's what Vanden Bosch had to say after the game: "I hate to use superlatives, but he's one of the best in the game. It's hard to argue that. Suh continues to make big play after big play after big play every week. Sometimes a defensive tackle will have a really good week and then disappear, but Suh continues to be a big-time playmaker for this defense. He's only going to get better, so the sky's the limit with him."

Since you'll often find his testimonials on the back of our Almanacs, we'll let head coach Jim Schwartz tell you too.

"We're doing a lot more with him in pass rush, moving him around. It's something that you grow into," Schwartz said at his Tuesday press conference. "You don't really have all those things at your disposal in the first game of the year, but every game you put in a little bit more and you're seeing us move him around a little bit more. Second play of the game, we had him moved out playing defensive end. I think that he's good against the run, he's good against the pass. I think the one thing that might be -- I don't want to say unrealistic -- because he can play very well, but his sack numbers are incredible for a defensive tackle.

"I think that the one thing we need to be careful of, he may play just as well over the next seven games and not have the same sack production. It doesn't mean he's not playing well. I think sometimes we make a little too much ... sacks are really important, but sometimes when a quarterback's either getting rid of the ball or something else has happened, it doesn't always translate to sacks. For him it has and it did in college also."

It is entirely possible that Suh's sack numbers will drop next Sunday, but that's because he'll be facing the New York Jets' outstanding line. From there, it's Buffalo (ouch), Dallas (oy vay), New England (an actual challenge!), and Chicago (you've got to be kidding me). By then, we'll probably be dealing with a double-digit sack season, which will be a great excuse to check in on him once again. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Suh. What he's doing so early in his career is something you don't often see.

The Fall: Jared Allen

With 4:56 left in the first half of the Miami Dolphins' Week 2 14-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings, defensive end Jared Allen took on the double team of left tackle Jake Long and running back Ronnie Brown as Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne looked for open receivers out of a shotgun, two-back set. As Henne moved up in the pocket (flushed out by end Ray Edwards), Allen disengaged from Long and brought Henne down with one arm. It was an impressive play that showed Allen's quickness and strength, as well as the value of the Allen-Edwards duo.

It was also the last time Jared Allen, who has started every game the Vikings have played this season, picked up a quarterback sack. From the second half of the Vikings' September 19 game until now, the man who finished second to Denver's Elvis Dumervil with 14.5 quarterback takedowns has seen his totals drop off to a worrisome degree. Theories abound. Allen is getting too old too fast. Pat Williams' decreasing effectiveness makes Allen an easier and more appealing target for double teams. And the most popular theory: When Allen snipped off his mullet in May to appease his future wife, he lost the source of his power -- the thing which showed the world that Allen always partied with two "R's" and accepted extra mayonnaise when it was offered to him.

I'm a sucker for wacky concepts like that, but the hole in the Mullet Theory is that no Vikings defender has put up a sack since October 11 against the Jets -- a franchise-high three-game stretch. Unless Allen's departed mullet somehow put a Bambino-like curse over the entire defense (cue the inevitable Dan Shaughnessy book), there are other issues to deal with. The same Jared Allen who harassed the offensive lines of the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in 2009 could do nothing against those teams this October. What's the problem? Last Sunday's Vikings game against the New England Patriots, as overrun as it was by stories of Brett Favre and Randy Moss, revealed a few answers.

First of all, teams still respect Allen's pass rush enough to set a back or tight end frequently as extra protection to his side, but the ease with which left tackle Matt Light was able to guide Allen out and away from the pocket was new to this season -- and something I'd seen in other Vikings games this year. Last year, Jared Allen had a wide array of moves to deal with his blockers, but the two moves that impressed me most in previous years, his bull-rush and the slide inside, are absolutely muted this season. When the Vikings bring linebackers up to blitz in the gap between Allen and Williams, the confusion you'd think would happen doesn't happen. It is generally distressingly easy for backs and tight ends, not to mention tackles singled up on Allen, to keep him outside the pocket.

"In the third quarter, I had a chance to sack (Tom Brady), but I went to strip the ball and I just missed," Allen recently told ESPN Twin Cities Radio. "Those plays, last year, we were making. I would have gotten a sack-strip-fumble. You never know what's going to happen. So, it starts with me, and all I can do is try and get better and see if we can't get some momentum."

That's all well and good, but I'm not seeing Allen as a "missed it by that much" defender at this point. Some guys do have terrible luck when it comes to sacks, but that trend doesn't generally last this long. More often, Allen is getting lost in the scrum and recovering more slowly from effective blocks than he did in the past. I don't want to close the door on a guy who's had three straight 14-plus sack seasons, and I'm well aware that sacks aren't the only indicator of effective lineman performance, but the concern over Allen's 2010 performance is longstanding -- and legitimate.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 03 Nov 2010

39 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2010, 1:34pm by Brett Wranglers


by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 12:27pm

Allen was falling off last year only it was missed because he demolished GB twice which accounted for almost half of his sacks.

Chad Clifton has bad wheels in the extreme and not only did he handle Allen easily in pass protection he actually moved him on running plays and Clifton hasn't been a good run blocker since about 2006.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 12:36pm

Most guys get most of theior sacks against their terrible opponents. Allen isn't doing nearly as well against his good opponents this year. Even when he wasn't getting sacks against them last year, he wasn't getting completely stoned, and still played the run very effectively. That is not the case this year.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 12:33pm

Yeah, I really don't understand what has happened to Allen; he can't be going over he age cliff this quickly, can he? Whatever it is, if it doesn't go away, the Vikings window will have slammed shut with force of piledriver, and won't likely start opening again for three or four years, at best. Way too many holes, which will have to filled, are opening. The current group is drafting much better than previous regimes, but when both lines and the qb spot (Joe Webb is the next Tom Brady!, Really!) need to be rebuilt, along with other possible problem areas, that doesn't sound like a one or two year re-tooling project.

The Chiller's failure to address the qb spot adequately, absent a one year miracle from a 40 year old HOFer, cost this team a chance to get multiple shots at the Lombardi.

As to Suh, I don't know anything about projecting college players to the pro level, but when a guy in a major conference is just that obviously physically better than his opponents, the chances that he at least won't be a good NFL player are pretty darn small. He might be the most bust-proof high draft pick I'd ever seen.

by Doug Farrar :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 12:44pm

Will, the alarming difference I see with Allen this year is how he "stays blocked" after first contact -- that is to say, his recovery speed isn't near what I saw from him even late in the 2009 season and through the playoffs. And the inside move adjustment after he's blocked outside seems to be a memory. It's a very fragile position and I've seen guys just fall off the building before.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 1:40pm

Yeah, that's about it. Even when he wasn't getting sacks against good opponents last year, he'd eventually get off the block, and force some reaction from the qb or the rb. This year he stays blocked, and I'm surprised to sse this happen to a guy with so much time remaining before his 30th birthday.

by jmaron :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:21pm

Bill James once did a study of baseball players based on race and found white players declined much more rapidly than black players.

I wonder if anyone has ever done such a study for football players? It would be much harder to do because it is so much harder to measure individual performance. But it would be interesting to see if the Gastineau's and Klecko's of the world decline faster than the black Defensive ends.

by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 11:45am

So Farve is deceptively long-lasting? That's all we needed.

by Jimmy :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:10pm

The Sampson principle, he shouldn't have cut his hair over a woman. Now he is going to have to pull down the Metrodome (was that bit in the Bible or just the movie?).

EDIT: I should probably read the whole article before ripping off the obvious jokes in it.

by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 11:44am

In all seriousness I'm pretty sure the mullet is a pretty big factor. I don't want to go into a very long psychological diatribe, but the man said it himself in the linked video: "I'll shave it when I die."

I mean, mullets have no power in themselves, but again, if you watch the video, Allen did ascribe his mullet with very strong symbolic qualities. So I think that when he shaved it for a girl, he basically chose love over football. Good for him.

by Theo :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 12:44pm

The girl on the left. Is she supposed to make us forget about Catholic Match Girl?

by dryheat :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 12:55pm


Yeah, I was shocked at how easily Matt Light was handling Allen during the game. Especially since the Chargers were running through Light like a turnstile with the arm missing the week before.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 1:01pm

She's a bimbo compared to Catholic Match Girl! An insult to her memory!

by Dean :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 1:23pm

Can I have both?

by Jimmy :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:08pm

It depends, are you Catholic?

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 4:42pm

Google her name -- Shawna Lenee, and you will probably forget about CMG.


by AudacityOfHoops :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 5:22pm

Doing that just makes me wish that breast implants had never been invented.

by James-London :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 6:10pm

VERY unsuitable for work... and for occassions when female family members might be walking past.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

by Theo :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 8:26pm

Come on. Don't they know about your porn collection on D:/downloadfolders/films/misc/pn??
I mean, every man has one.

by speedegg :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 1:09pm

Wow. Jared Allen is only 28, I expected a drop off around 30. If age/no fast twitch muscles are an issue now, he's done. If he's "nicked-up" by various injuries he doesn't want to tell the coaching staff, then he'll probably improve.

As for Detroit opponents, be afraid. Be very afraid....

by ammek :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 1:15pm

Is Allen's problem mostly technical, as you describe, or did he continue to play antsy, as against Green Bay? Either way, I prefer the mullet theory — so if there's a Mrs Matthews, please please leave hubbie's locks alone, however ridiculous they look.

by NWebster :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 1:47pm

On Allen, i don't think you can dismiss the fact that x/GB he had a pretty middling year last year. Sure everybody beats up on young, old or injured OT's, but HALF of his sacks in two games against a team that made Antwan Odom look otherworldly isn't particularly impressive.

On Suh, as i sit here at my desk in Austin Texas, I can say that i've never ever seen a College Defensive player dominate as he did last season. Will all due respect to the only guy who's done it, Charles Woodson doesn't sniff the Downtown Athletic Club without lining up on Offense. The Big 12 title game reminded me of watching Reggie White toss Patriots around the Superdome in the 1996 Super Bowl - but Suh has upside too! I think it would be fun to see him as a 3-4 End with a strong OLB behind him - how many sacks could Wake, Harrison or Ware pick up when the guy in front of you demands being doubled or tripled?

by Will Allen :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:24pm

I'd given up on the Heisman far before Woodson showed up in Ann Arbor, but when the meatheads who vote in that farce identified that many guys last year who were allegedly more outstanding college players than Suh, it went from farce to sheer idiocy.

by The Hypno-Toad :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:53pm

I lurrrrve Suh. Why couldn't the Broncos have been this awful last season, given us a legitimate shot at picking in his range, or possibly being able to trade into that position? But nooo, we had to be accidentally mediocre last season and now we're awful with no Ndomukong Suh at the end of the crappy rainbow.
I had never seen that "Jared Allen explains the mullet" video before. That was hilarious. I generally find him annoying when I hear him speak, but that was great.

by Shattenjager :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 8:16pm

I don't know if I could stomach the Broncos' best player being from Nebraska.

Even with my extreme hatred of college football, the cognitive dissonance might be too much.

by The Hypno-Toad :: Fri, 11/05/2010 - 3:08am

Eh, I'd be happy with the Broncos having a player who would be worth referring to as thier "best player." I love me some Dumervil, and a couple of other guys, but this team, as presently constructed... Yeesh.

by jmaron :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:57pm

I looked up some of the top sack specialists to see if there were some precedents so to speak (double digit sack specialists with a big drop in their 20's):

Kevin Greene (160 career sacks) - went from 13 to 3 at age 29. Played all 16 games. Had 10 the next year and 7 more double digits sack years and one 9 sack year.

Strahan went from 15.5 to 5.5 at 28 while playing 16 games. He of course had some huge season afterwards including 22.5 in 2001.

Clyde Simmons went from 19 to 5 at 29 while playing all 16 games. He had one more double digit season (11 at 31 yrs of age) and 6 seasons between 5-8.5 sacks.

Kevin Carter went from 10.5 to 2 sacks at 28 while playing all 16 games. He only had one more year with 10 sacks and the rest were 3-6 for several seasons,

Freeney had 9 sacks over 2 seasons at 26 and 27 (27 games) after 4 double digit years. But he was battling injuries as I recall.

Peppers had 2.5 at age 27 (14 games) after 3 double digit years in a row previously. Popped back up with 2 double digit years at 28 and 29 years of age.

Don't know if these comparisons tell us anything about where Allen is heading. But it seems fairly common for guys to have big drops in their late 20s. Couldn't find anyone even close to Allen's production but was subsequently done at 28.

From watching him he just doesn't look as quick or determined. He doesn't seem to have the motor going like he did the last two years.

by NWebster :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 4:52pm

The critical observation above is that TYPICALLY, with the level of success that Allen's had, a player of this caliber will return to prominence even after a weak season.

by BJR :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 3:00pm

A lot of the 'down' seasons for those guys were probably due to them carrying injuries of some description through the season. Given an off season to recuperate, they returned to prominence. Wouldn't be a surprise if this was the case with Allen.

by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 3:04pm

I guess that makes Reggie White an even more extreme example of greatness considering he continued to register solid totals into his mid-30's.

by Whatev :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 5:00pm

When the Detroit-Chicago game rolls along I'm hoping Schwartz will have a play where he just rushes Suh alone and sees if he can take on the entire Chicago OL by himself.

by chemical burn :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 5:31pm

I've actually wondered why teams with a really good interior lineman (or men) don't try this. The Williams wall in its prime probably would've been enough to keep the opposing running game in check and then you could do some crazy things with Blitzes and coverages. Or with a motivated Haynesworth just crashing the middle. It seems like, at very least, it would create some chaos (which is frequently a good thing for the defense.)

by kevinM (not verified) :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 5:12pm


the dip in Strahan's production coincided with the only season he played "right" DE. Based on comments he's made, it was a really big issue for him and he never played on that side again.

by jmaron :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 11:11pm

that's interesting - I never played football but I know in hockey and basketball most players are far more comfortable driving to the net or the basket from a favourite side. I would imagine that would be a similar thing for a lot of defensive ends.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 7:53am

Sure....typically on one side there's a tight end, and on the other there's not.

by floressalicis (not verified) :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 10:22am

You would be right. People have asked about moving Mathis to the left side when Freeney is injured, and the Colts actually don't do it very often. Mathis has said he's not very comfortable on the left from a technique point of view, not just superior tackles or double teams.

by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 11/03/2010 - 7:41pm

Great take on Suh. The Redskins definitely focused on him, which opened things up for Avril and Vanden Bosch, who are pretty good players themselves.

by Jerry :: Thu, 11/04/2010 - 9:31pm

There would only be a Shaughnessy book if Allen was a Patriot.

I know that Doug doesn't compare Suh to Joe Greene lightly. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to watch Thanksgiving Day.

by Jimmy :: Fri, 11/05/2010 - 1:22pm

it'll be interesting to watch Thanksgiving Day.

It is a very long time since I recall that sentiment being expressed.

by Brett Wranglers (not verified) :: Sat, 11/06/2010 - 1:34pm

Just asking but has anybody seen Gerald McCoy? I haven't heard anything about him and when watching Bucs games he seems pretty invisible.

Sad that people thought he was better than Suh. And another note, looking at how well the Rams defense is playing, could you imagine them with Suh on that d-line.

Not taking anything away from Bradford who has been doing an amazing job with players like Gillard and Amendola at WR.