IRVINE, Calif. – At one point this week in Los Angeles Rams training camp, as players trickled onto the field for workouts, three alphas moved in a cluster. Chatting, smiling and jabbing, the mini caravan of Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib – the newest jewels in a sudden influx of All-Pro defensive riches – arrived for work with most eyes fixed on them.
“We got some corners,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips would say later, looking upon the group. “Not that we didn’t have some before, but we definitely got some No. 1 corners that can play. And obviously, Suh.”
Phillips paused for a moment and shook his head after a visitor asked whether the 31-year-old Suh might be entering the winter of his career.
“No, no, no,” Phillips said. “He’s still a great player.”
Phillips is relatively low-key and unexcitable, but he accentuated that point about Suh. Not just a good player. Not just a big addition. But a great player. One whose pairing next to reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald will likely be the key to unleashing this Rams defense. Moreso than the addition of a pair of shutdown corners in Peters and Talib. While those corners will be vital to triggering Phillips’ defense this season, allowing for unparalleled aggression in the scheme, it’s Suh and Donald who will become the juggernauts used to batter offensive fronts this season. Like J.J. Watt in Phillips’ previous defenses with the Houston Texans, Phillips is counting on Suh to be an agent of destruction, both in flexibility of position and brute force of will.
“We’re gonna do him the same as we do Donald,” Phillips said of Suh. “When you get a great player, that’s what you do. He’s a good matchup in most situations and he’s smart, too. Like J.J. [Watt], it was the same thing with him. We could move J.J. around a lot, but he was also smart enough to know how to play it when he was moved around. Ndamukong, we’re going to move him around, sure. Middle pressure [on the quarterback] – we’re going to be No. 1 there with him and Donald. They’re not ready for those two guys.”
It’s a welcome proclamation for the Rams, after postseason meetings produced a very high bullet point on their list: find another big, disruptive defensive body. That was something the coaching staff and personnel department agreed upon after digesting film of the 26-13 playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons. In that defeat, defensive end Michael Brockers went down with a knee injury and it deflated L.A.’s run defense. Ultimately, the film didn’t lie: The Rams needed more disruptive talent and depth on the line.
What they didn’t know was that Suh would become available in March. After piecing together a free-agent list of targets and some backup options in the NFL draft, general manager Les Snead’s heart leapt when he heard news that Miami was considering releasing Suh. It was the kind of gift from the heavens that rarely happens in team planning – and it quickly altered the course of some well-laid plans.
As Snead put it this week, “There’s a quote I like. Something like: ‘As the wind changes, you must adjust your sails.’ ”
It didn’t come without some thought, of course. The Rams had heard the same echoes as other teams – that Suh was (take your pick) quiet or finicky or moody … or just a loner who often went his way. His game? Like everyone else, the Rams went to the film to see if Suh had lost any of the tools that once made him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.
And what did they see?
“Still a dominant player,” Phillips said this week. “He still dominates the people he plays. Let’s just say he Ndominates people.”
It was a corny joke. But deep down, it’s not a punch line. That’s what the Rams believed when they made their pitch in free agency, that they were trying to land Ndominant Suh. A guy with more elite seasons in the tank, who can create quarterback pressure from a nose tackle spot and be moved tactically along lines to wreak havoc. Not to mention be the missing piece that helps fine-tune the offseason additions of Peters and Talib, while also energizing the massive salary the team intends to (eventually) lavish on Donald, who hasn’t reported to camp yet because of a salary dispute.
Suh is buying that sales pitch – along with the idea of playing in the postseason for years to come, as he feathers his eventual Hall of Fame nest. What he isn’t buying is the idea that Miami let him go due to something skills-related. Or that he’s going into decline at 31.
“By no means do I think I’ve fallen off,” Suh told Yahoo Sports. “Nobody outside of myself will define where I’m at in my playing career. The one thing I will say is people look at age and ability through other people’s lenses – whether that’s media or other people’s opinions – rather than looking at the tape. If you look at the tape, I’ve been consistent. Consistently beating people, being successful.”
Now he’s part of what could be one of the most exciting defenses in the league this season, and if Phillips and the Rams see their wishes materialize, something more special: a unit of alphas that create a locker room environment and standard that sets a foundation for years to come. Much like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs did in their heyday with the Baltimore Ravens. Or Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Bruce Irvin did during the recent peak years of the Seattle Seahawks’ defense.
Those were locker rooms where the standard and attitude was set high and competition was wound unbelievably tight – in the best possible way. If Suh, Talib and Peters can slide in with Donald and create a similar atmosphere, it promises to be something far different than what the Rams have fielded since returning to Los Angeles. Maybe championship-worthy. Maybe historical.
“We’ve got the talent,” Phillips said. “I don’t know. I’ve been a lot of really good defenses with a lot of players. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver. That was special. Reggie White and Jerome Brown with the Philadelphia Eagles. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
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