TAMPA ― Ndamukong Suh has more touchdowns than sacks, is averaging just over two tackles per game and may not be the best defensive tackle on his own team.
Yet Suh is a dominant force in the middle of the Bucs defense, even if at this point in his career most of the cheers come from his peers.
“He has been unbelievable since he came in here,’’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said of Suh, who will turn 33 next month. “I didn’t know how intelligent of a player he was, not [having been] around him, but between him and Beau (Allen) in that D-line room helping out the other D-linemen, I think it’s been extraordinary from a help standpoint.
“Him understanding blocking schemes, taking up double teams and being able to move across the line of scrimmage has helped us a great deal. You can see a lot of guys that (have) been in the league for a while that only do things one way. He learns, he works hard (and) he wants to be better every day.’’
Suh returns Sunday to Detroit, where he established a reputation as one of the league’s most dominant players. He returns with just 1.5 sacks compared to two fumble returns for touchdowns.
Yet Suh has drawn the fifth-most double teams in the NFL, the ultimate sign of respect on a defensive line that includes NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett (15.5).
“It’s something I’m used to, something I’ve always prided myself on,’’ Suh said of the double teams. “Truthfully, I look at it as a sign of respect. At the same time, I’ve got to find ways to beat double-teams and free up my teammates.’’
Suh’s pairing with second-year defensive tackle Vita Vea has been a win for the Bucs. While Suh’s 1.5 sacks and 31 tackles are both career lows, he’s helped Vea become more aggressive.
“Vita is a young kid who’s got a lot of talent,’’ Suh said. “He’s very, very gifted. I see his future as being very bright as long he continues to hone his craft. He’ll be a dominant force for Tampa.’’
And while Suh is not the pass rusher he was during five seasons in Detroit, he is one of the biggest reasons the Bucs are the NFL’s best rushing defense, allowing only 75.5 yards per game. It’s the fewest rushing yards allowed by any team since 2014, when Detroit held teams to 69.3 yards with Suh as the Lions’ Bowl force in the middle.
“They have a lot of guys that they kind of use in different roles over there, but certainly, he’s still big, long, explosive, powerful, all those things,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “So I would expect to see all of that. He’s a great player. He’s playing inside, can get on those guards, can get back into the center, can push the middle of the pocket."
There will be plenty of eyes on Suh when he returns for the 1 p.m. game at Ford Field.
“I love the city,’’ Suh said. “Simple as that. Always shown me love even when I’m there in the offseason. Always appreciate the city and the fans."
Lions fans were hurt when Suh decided to become a free agent after five seasons there and sign with the Miami Dolphins. Last year, he made it all the way to the Super Bowl in his only season with the Los Angeles Rams.
When the Bucs decided to release Gerald McCoy, Suh had virtually agreed as a free agent to a one-year, $9.5-million contract.
McCoy has five sacks and 29 tackles for the Panthers, but few would argue that it was a bad decision by the Bucs. The Bucs front seven is one of the best in the NFL, especially with rookie Devin White and veteran linebacker Lavonte David able to run free and make tackles with Suh and Vea occupying blockers.
Of course, the highlight for Suh this season has been scooping fumbles and scoring against the Rams and Falcons.
The Bucs are Suh’s third team in three seasons and he will become a free agent in March. Gone are the suspension-inducing plays from his Lions days when he was fined eight times and made to sit out two games for violating player-safety rules.
Still, Suh will be “extremely fired up to come here and play,” Patricia predicted. He was last season in his only game in Detroit since leaving the Lions. Suh totaled five solo tackles and two hits on quarterback Matthew Stafford in the Rams’ 30-16 victory.
He’s not the same player Lions fans remember, but Suh has been all the Bucs hoped for.
“You challenge him mentally, he challenges you mentally," Bowles said," and he makes you want to be a better coach because he wants to be a better player.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud