When Terrell Suggs returned a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown a week and a half ago, nobody could quite believe their eyes, not even the Ravens outside linebacker himself.
Said coach John Harbaugh: “I’m just thinking, ‘There’s no way “Sizz” is going to outrun him,’ ” referring to Oakland Raiders wide receiver Marcell Ateman.
And outside linebacker Matthew Judon: “He outran everybody. I don’t know how, but he did it. Those hamstrings pulled through.”
And Suggs, 36 years young: “It seemed like it took me forever to get there. I was in disbelief. I was like, ‘This is for sure going to get called back.’ Once the defense was celebrating with me, I was like, ‘Oh, this counts. OK, cool.’ But I had nothing in the tank. I was gassed.”
There has been no confusing Suggs this season for his more vintage iterations, the player who, guard Marshal Yanda joked, would’ve looked to pitch a recovered fumble as if he were Ed Reed. Over the three-game losing streak that had the Ravens' season teetering a month ago, he had a combined seven tackles, two quarterback hits and one sack. Sometimes he blew assignments. He stood inactive on the sideline for the final defensive series of a Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But in the Ravens’ 26-16 victory Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons, Suggs turned back the clock. He was explosive and strong, finishing with at least three quarterback hits and a sack for the first time in over a year. He was wily and reliable, sniffing out calls and sitting just 12 of the defense’s 53 plays. He was, for a half anyway, maybe the best player on a defense that would hold the Falcons to their fewest yards this century.
“In this league, you’ll have a good week on defense and the next week get lit up,” said Suggs, whose message of consistency has never wavered from week to week, even as his production has. “It’s a good performance to have in December, especially when you’re trying to get into the second season. You want to play your best football in December, and we did that today.”
Suggs has 132 sacks over his 16-season career, 15th most all time. Pass rushers do not come within a half-sack of the legendary Lawrence Taylor’s all-time total with one signature move or from one predictable position. The best are chameleonic.
His sack Sunday came during the Falcons’ second drive, against right tackle Ryan Schraeder. The play was what teammates and opponents have come to expect from the seven-time Pro Bowl selection: speed and strength off the edge, and a shark’s nose for blood in the water when outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith’s inside rush got quarterback Matt Ryan skittish.
Suggs’ next pressure came a quarter later, this time against Atlanta’s left side. It was nothing fancy, just good, old-fashioned hand fighting against tackle Jake Matthews. Airtight coverage downfield bought Suggs enough time to get to the edge, and from there it was a footrace with Ryan.
The quarterback won, barely, but his incompletion brought on yet another third-and-long.
Sometimes the fear of Suggs is enough of a weapon by itself. As the Falcons moved downfield late in the second quarter, looking to extend their three-point lead to double digits, they faced third-and-8 near midfield.
Suggs, lining up opposite Schraeder, was one of five to rush Ryan, who had seven players in protection. As Judon, on the right side of the defensive line, dropped into coverage after the snap, the line crashed in his direction.
Atlanta guard Zane Beadles and center J.C. Hassenauer should’ve accounted for Smith, who was rushing just inside of Suggs. Instead, Beadles offered only a courtesy tap before shuffling over to handle Suggs. By the time he’d gotten hands on No. 55, Smith was already wrapping up Ryan for an 11-yard loss.
The Falcons had a week and a half to prepare for the Ravens, but sometimes it seemed as if Suggs had eavesdropped on their game-planning. He certainly looked more prepared than they did early in each half.
On Atlanta’s second drive of the game, running back Tevin Coleman motioned from right to left, so that the Falcons had four receivers on Suggs’ side of the field. As soon as Coleman moved to the left flat, Suggs knew what was coming. At the snap of the ball, he shot upfield, but more toward Coleman than the pocket. Ryan couldn’t throw a simple screen; Suggs was in his way. He double-clutched, then threw the ball feet short of his target for a just-get-this-over-with incompletion.
Two quarters later, Suggs showed his spidey sense again. As Atlanta tight end Logan Paulsen relocated to the left side of the line, Suggs repositioned himself ever so slightly, moving a yard or two closer to the sideline.
Did he recognize the formation and personnel? Was Matthews’ presnap hip tap a tell? Whatever the case, Suggs beat Paulsen to his spot, dipped and bent around his block and dropped Coleman for a 2-yard loss.
“He’s already legendary, so he’s adding on to his legend,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “It’s great to be beside him and learn and talk football with him every day.”
Afterward, asked how he was playing so well late in the season, Suggs attributed his success in part to the coaching staff’s confidence in him. Despite his recent ups and downs, Suggs’ game day responsibilities have only grown in recent weeks. He has played over 75 percent of the Ravens' defensive snaps in three straight games for the first time this season.
A free agent after this season, Suggs has an unclear future in Baltimore. But his performance Sunday suggested that not all of his best days are behind him.
“You’ve got to ignore the noise and just know the people who know you and who know football,” Suggs said. “You just stay in it, and you play your best football in December.”
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