As he grumbled his way through a conversation Sunday night, a Detroit Lions player was asked to consider what has happened this season.
"Yeah, we're loaded," the player said, exhaling after Detroit (4-8) lost its fourth consecutive game and third by four points or less. "But we have a couple of guys who don't understand what it takes to win. Just making a couple of plays and thinking that makes you great … sometimes you want to just shake some of these guys and say, 'Don't you get it?' "
Anybody in particular?
"Ndamukong [Suh] would be first."
Detroit is a study in regression this season, a 2011 playoff qualifier that seems to find ways to lose despite a roster that includes Suh, record-setting wide receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, a slew of other talented players and bright head coach Jim Schwartz.
"This isn't the same team that didn't win a game [in 2008]," said 12th-year veteran center Dominic Raiola, who has spent his entire career with Detroit. "It's not even close. This team has too much talent to be compared to that."
Or as Pettigrew put it: "This is not who we are. We're losing games in crazy ways."
Worse, this is a team that seems plagued by distractions. In the offseason, the Lions had four different players get arrested a total of seven times. Subsequently, cornerback Aaron Berry was released by the team in July after a second arrest in a 30-day span. In May, wide receiver Titus Young was banned from participating in OTAs after sucker-punching teammate Louis Delmas.
Young, a second-round pick in 2011, has continued to be a problem, essentially working his way off the team through insubordination. Young was placed on injured reserve this week because of a knee injury, but he had been banned from the team facility and was inactive for two weeks because he refused to run plays the right way in a Week 11 loss to the Green Bay Packers. That situation led to an in-game flare up between offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and wide receiver Shawn Jefferson. The receiver continually complained to coaches and teammates that he should be getting the ball more because he's better than Johnson, according to two team sources. His attitude was so bad that Raiola recently called Young an "[butt]hole" publicly.
But to some in the organization, the problem doesn't come from the bottom up with expendable players such as Berry and Young. It's from the top down, with the high-profile Suh leading the way.
If there is one player who symbolizes the underachieving ways of the Lions, it is Suh. Despite the fact that Suh has improved some of his numbers from last season (his 5 ½ sacks with four games remaining is already better than the 4 ½ he had in 2011), there still appears to be a lack of awareness of what it takes to win.
That lack of awareness was on display during Sunday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Suh was a beast early, sacking Colts rookie Andrew Luck on Detroit's first defensive snap of the game and leading a pass rush that consistently put pressure on the young passer. Luck threw three interceptions and had two other potential picks dropped.
But on the game's last play, a fourth-down desperation scramble and throw by Luck, Suh's lack of awareness showed up. Instead of staying in his rush lane to keep Luck from being able to step up and out of the pocket, Suh went over the center. The play created a wide gap for Luck to step through and create time for wide receiver Donnie Avery to get open across the middle of the field for the game-winning catch and run.
"It's Football 101. Don't let the quarterback get out of the pocket," a member of the coaching staff said. "[Zone] coverage, only a touchdown can beat you, make the [quarterback] throw from the pocket, get in his face. But don't, under any circumstances, give the quarterback a chance to escape and create. That's where the defense breaks down."
The rookie quarterback passed for 391 yards, the second highest total of his NFL career so far, and overcame three interceptions with two great drives at the end of the game to lead Indianapolis to a 35-33 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Down by 12 points with four minutes left, Luck drove 85 yards in a little more than a minute, throwing a 42-yard touchdown strike to LaVon Brazill. The Colts defense got the ball back to Luck with 1:07 on the clock and 75 yards to go for the win. On fourth down with eight seconds remaining, Luck hit Donnie Avery with the winning 14-yard touchdown pass, Luck's fourth of the game, to shock the Lions and the home fans.
– Mike Patton
Sadly, that's exactly what Suh did as Detroit lost its fifth game by six points or less. The current losing streak has been extraordinarily frustrating, including the Thanksgiving overtime loss to the Houston Texans in which Schwartz mistakenly threw a challenge flag that allowed Justin Forsett's 81-yard touchdown run to stand on a play that would have been overturned during an automatic replay review.
Schwartz has defended his third-year defensive tackle even though Suh has been involved in a series of questionable plays. Among others, he was fined $30,000 last week for kicking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin on Thanksgiving, a game in which Suh failed to record a tackle. And last year, he was suspended two games for stomping Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith.
On Sunday, Indianapolis right tackle Mike McGlynn ripped Suh for "dancing" after Colts offensive lineman Winston Justice was hurt after a block by Suh during the return of an interception. Justice left the game with a concussion and McGlynn confronted Suh after the game.
"Totally ignorant on their part, just childish stuff," McGlynn told the Indianapolis Star. "We're all battling out there; I don't know if the hit was legal or not, but clearly he was hurt, and they're out there dancing and pointing at him and laughing. Just blatant disrespect. They're good players, but there's no room for that. It's disgusting, really."
Suh claimed that he wasn't celebrating Justice's injury and the NFL ruled the hit was legal. However, Suh claimed last year that he didn't stomp Dietrich-Smith when it was quite evident he did.
"The personal fouls and stuff like that haven't been there this year," Schwartz said. "I think he has one penalty the whole year, a five-yard offside penalty. He's a player that gets a lot of attention. There's a lot of armchair quarterbacking and Monday morning coaching when it comes to Ndamukong because there are cameras on him all the time, examining everything he does."
Still, there are times when Suh loses focus on what's necessary, in the opinion of both players and coaches.
"If you want to talk about overall talent and ability, there are maybe two or three guys in the league like him," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "He's a completely dominant player."
"He's focused for 90 percent of the time," a teammate said. "But it's the 10 percent that kills you. … With [Suh], he loses his cool and all of a sudden we're blowing a play or dealing with some controversy."
But the worst part of Suh's behavior is the trickle effect it has on the team.
"When stars act like that, everybody else thinks it's OK to act like that," the player said. "It's like with kids. You let one get a little out of control, the other one does the same thing pretty quick. It's human nature."
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