Let's get something straight right from the start. I'm thrilled that Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs is stocking his trophy cabinet and continuing to do graduate work at Ball So Hard University. He's fun to watch and fun to listen to and he's clearly got the attention of the people who hand out the hardware to the best players in the game.
Monday, he was named 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year by Pro Football Weekly. Tuesday, he was named NFL 101 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, which creates a nice juxtaposition with the NFL 101 Offensive Player of the Year – a guy named Brady whom Suggs will be able to congratulate in person this Sunday.
The most prestigious of the annual DPOY trophies – presented by the Associated Press -- won't be handed out until the Super Bowl week
, but you can probably assume from those earlier honors that Suggs is one of the leading candidates.
So, why am I not totally convinced that Suggs is the best defensive player in the league this season?
Why am I – along with a lot of Ravens fans, I'm sure – waiting for him to remove any doubt when the Ravens travel to Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game ?
For the Ravens to upset the Patriots in Foxborough, the Ravens defense will need to spend a lot of quality time on Tom Brady's chest, and Suggs is the guy who leads the team in the stats that suggest they are capable of doing that.
He set a career high with 14 sacks during the regular season and a franchise record with seven forced fumbles. He also made 70 tackles, which is the second-highest total of his career, so nobody can dispute that he is building a case for Canton. But the distribution of his 2011 numbers is cause for pause as the Ravens prepare for the most important game of the John Harbaugh era.
Nine of Suggs' 14 sacks and six of his seven forced fumbles came in three games – the season-opening rout of the Steelers, the Thanksgiving Night victory over the 49ers and the Week 14 win over the Colts. His seventh forced fumble was a huge play against the Bengals in the final regular-season game, but Suggs has registered just one sack in his last four games – including Sunday's playoff victory over the Houston Texans – and has not been his usual intimidating self in any of them.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for that, some of them entirely out of his control. Suggs has been a marked man during the second half of the season – the guy defensive coordinators single out as the one Ravens pass rusher who must be kept out of the offensive backfield at any cost. And that got a lot easier for several weeks when Ray Lewis was struggling with a toe injury.
In Sunday's game, it probably had more to do with the Ravens' defensive scheme, since they focused largely on stopping Houston superback Arian Foster and the Texans made sure that rookie quarterback T.J. Yates got the ball out very quickly in obvious passing situations.
The Patriots present an entirely different kind of challenge for the Ravens' defense. They ranked 20th during the regular season in average rushing yards per game and displayed little big-play potential on the ground. Patriots running backs combined for just five plays longer than 20 yards and their longest run from scrimmage all year was just 33 yards. So, it's going to be all about putting pressure on Brady to slow down a passing attack that ranked second only to the New Orleans Saints during the regular season (318 yards per game) and rolled up 363 yards and six touchdowns against the overmatched Denver Broncos on Saturday.
Suggs clearly welcomes the challenge. He put a huge hit on Brady in the Ravens' 33-14 playoff victory at Foxborough two years ago, forcing a fumble that helped the Ravens build a big early lead. He also had a sack and a forced fumble in a six-point loss to the Patriots during the 2009 regular season and registered a sack in last year's three-point loss at New England.
This year, his sacks have come in bunches, so maybe he's due for another big game on Sunday…a game worthy of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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