The mouth is a little quieter, but the body is leaner, the feet are quicker and the mind is sharper.
It's been said and written that Terrell Suggs, who has seven sacks this season, has recaptured his 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year form after an injury-plagued 2012.
But those who know the rush linebacker best insist that they're watching an even better player, one who is combining physical skills with a deeper knowledge of the game, an increased focus and a stronger desire to lead.
"You see him growing not just into this awesome talent, but he has this mastery of the position," said former Ravens linebacker and current ESPN broadcaster Ray Lewis. "It's a place you get to when you start understanding exactly how gifted you are — not just with your talent, but understanding the whole game. That's what you see now. To watch it, it's beautiful. It's beautiful to see his focus. It's beautiful to see how he came back in shape, ready to make that run. You're talking about someone who has rededicated not just his mind to the game, but his body."
When the Ravens meet the Green Bay Packers this afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, much will be at stake for the home team and for Suggs. The Ravens (3-2) are looking for a signature win and some consistency after an uneven start.
For Suggs, a sixth straight game with a sack would set a franchise record. He also is four tackles shy of recording the second-highest number of tackles in franchise history, an accomplishment that he values because it shows that he's more than just a pass rusher. Suggs' 36 tackles this season are second on the team to middle linebacker Daryl Smith.
"What I see with Terrell, he's playing more of a complete game than he's ever played. He's back to dominating against the run," said former Ravens and New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, now an analyst for 'That Other Pregame Show' on CBS Sports Network. "The thing that happens to great players is their mind and body meet. I think his football mind is higher than it's ever been, because it has to be.
"You don't have Ed Reed or Ray Lewis to lean on for pre-snap recognition or information. Sometimes we took it for granted that Ed and Ray, they know what the play is, they'll call it out. Terrell is closest to the line and he sees the least as far as the whole formation, but I think he's opening his vision up, he's [processing] more information and his attention to detail is higher."
Suggs, who turned 31 on Friday, hasn't been interested in discussing his evolution as a player or leader. The same guy who for the previous 10 seasons has delivered countless quips and colorful quotes has been subdued this year. During an interview Wednesday, his normally booming voice barely rose above a whisper.
"We have great expectations for this team," he said. "You can't be satisfied after five games with what you've done. It's not a big deal. Then again, we're not horrible. We're going to continue to work."
Facing the challenge
Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino also coached Suggs at Arizona State, and he understands what buttons to push with the player and when to push them. So with the Ravens and the Miami Dolphins in a tight game last Sunday, Monachino decided in the fourth quarter that the timing was right.
"We've all seen enough times when he's taken games over, and it was time for him to do that," Monachino said. "We needed a play, and I went to who I consider one of our best playmakers and told him it was time. He knows what the expectation is for him and this defense. He knows what all of the other players expect. That was a great time for him to take it over, obviously."
Suggs had one sack on the Dolphins' first drive of the fourth quarter and two sacks of Ryan Tannehill in a three-play span on Miami's next drive. The Ravens held on for a 26-23 victory.
"He's set a pretty high standard for himself for a long time," Monachino said. "When he's healthy, this is what you get. Him being such a student of the game and understanding what we're trying to get done as well as what their offense is trying to do, I've never seen him better than what he is right now."
As much as he tried to take over games last season, Suggs wasn't physically capable. An injury to his Achilles tendon that required offseason surgery cost him just six games, but it also robbed him of his explosiveness getting off the line of scrimmage. A torn right biceps later in the season took away his ability to shed blockers.
Suggs had four sacks in 12 games, and his teammates marveled at his willingness to play through significant injuries. Suggs, however, knew the Ravens needed more.
He dedicated his offseason to getting back in shape. He's now listed at 260 pounds after playing at a considerably heavier weight last season, but even Suggs had doubts about whether his explosiveness would return.
"You always want to know when it's going to happen, but you've got to stay the course," he said. "You've got to continue to work at it. Would I have liked to have had it early? Yes, but last year is gone."
'He's at the top of his game'
While getting his body right, Suggs also has had to wrap his mind around the fact that with Lewis and Reed gone, he's considered the leader of the Ravens' defense, whether he wants to be or not.
"He knew the responsibility was going to fall on him," said Scott, who became close to Suggs early in their careers. "The first thing you do as a leader is make sure all the flaws in your game are sewn up. You can't tell somebody else to work hard and push themselves if they see that you haven't. The easiest way to prove that is to come in tremendous shape. I can just tell what kind of shape he is in, that his body fat is low. I can tell that he's very prepared."
In his 2011 Defensive Player of the Year season, Suggs had 70 tackles, a career-high 14 sacks, two interceptions and a franchise record seven forced fumbles. He has yet to cause a turnover this year, but he's on pace to easily eclipse those sack and tackle numbers.
"I'd say he's at the top of his game right now, and playing as well as I've ever seen," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "If it's the best, I don't know. But he's playing as well as he's ever played — I'd say that."
Lewis won't argue that point. He recalls meeting Suggs during the buildup to the 2003 draft and thinking, "Oh my gosh, this kid is out of control."
Eventually, Suggs started asking Lewis daily about why he ate what he ate, why he said what he said and how he managed to play the better part of two decades in the NFL.
"He was doing his own inventory on what it takes to get to that level," Lewis said. "You're talking about somebody who loves the game, who loves how you approach the game. I've played with a lot of warriors. But if I had a number in mind, Sizzle is in my top two or three, easily. Watching him grow into what he is now is probably one of the most exciting things I've been able to watch."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun