"I think everything we do, from the offseason program up until we walk out on the field in Week 1, we need to be creating our own legacy," said Terrell Suggs when asked about the hype around the defense. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
On the eve of his 15th training camp, Terrell Suggs allowed himself to look back. The outspoken Ravens linebacker normally avoids nostalgia, but it isn't clear how many training camps the 34-year-old has left in his career.
He recalled getting a pie thrust in his face as part of rookie hazing. He remembers the concern he had of making a mistake and getting chewed out by an established teammate. But more than anything else from the summer of 2003, the memory that still sticks with Suggs is his overwhelming fear of disappointing teammates on a vaunted defense that included Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Peter Boulware and Adalius Thomas.
"You have to remember, we had a marquee defense then," Suggs said Wednesday after reporting to the Under Armour Performance Center with the rest of the Ravens veterans. "It was a star-studded defense, so you just wanted to do your part. We were really good at policing ourselves. You didn't really hear it from a coach. You heard it from a peer, somebody that has been respected and revered in this league since the day he stepped on the field. It was like, 'I better be in my playbook, I better have my [act] together.' It was like, 'All right, this is something special. I'm either going to get on board or are they going to roll right over me.'"
The rest of that 2003 defense is all gone. So many other teammates that followed, guys like Haloti Ngata and Jarret Johnson who became some of Suggs' closest friends, have also long since departed.
Yet when the team hits the practice field early Thursday morning, Suggs will still be an essential part on an otherwise young defense that is striving to be as dominant of some of the Ravens' units from yesteryear. As the organization's longest-tenured player, Suggs remains the guy that sets the tone for the rest of the team, too.
"He is our team leader. We have a lot of guys who have big voices on the team, but when it comes [down] to it, he is the alpha male on the team. I'm one, too, but he's that guy," wide receiver Mike Wallace said Wednesday. "He is the voice of our team. When Sizz says something, everybody respects [it]. Sizz won a Super Bowl, Sizz has been to multiple Pro Bowls, first-team All-Defense, first-team All-Pro. He's seen every single situation from the highs to the lows. When a guy like that talks, you be respectful and you listen to every single thing he has to say, and we all do."
Suggs, who will turn 35 in October, has two years remaining on his Ravens contract, but the team could get out of the deal without too much damage to their salary cap after the upcoming campaign. How Suggs performs this year will surely go a long way in deciding his future with the only NFL team for which he has played.
Whether that was his motivation earlier this year, when Suggs stayed around the Baltimore area and worked out at the team facility for the first offseason of his career, the pass rusher wouldn't say. Teammates, however, acknowledge that they've never seen him this engaged.
"His work ethic has risen a tremendous amount," nose tackle Brandon Williams said. "You never knew he could do that, but it's gotten better. He's in here, he's working hard, he's motivating a lot more. He's talking to young guys, he's pulling guys aside, just kind of digging his roots a lot deeper into the defense and the team. He was here this whole offseason grinding. He was here just doing his job as a leader and as the face of this defense, just to be the greatest player he can."
Suggs said he considered this offseason the best of his career. He had a minor surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow, but he recovered quickly and it wasn't too long before he was working daily with Steve Saunders, the team's director of performance. Suggs had traditionally worked out on his own back in Arizona during the offseason, but he opted to stay around after hearing teammates rave about the impact Saunders was making.
"In year 15, Steve Saunders is the best thing that happened to me," Suggs said. "I'm glad he's here. I was hearing about the things that he was doing during the season while we were playing and I was like, 'You know what? After I have surgery on my arm, I'm going to give it a shot.' From day one, he beat the hell out of me. I ain't going to lie to you. He had to make sure I wasn't on my way to the airport flying back to Arizona. He called me and was like, 'Sizz, give it a chance, it's going to get better.' I'm like, 'I'm still here, coach.' Working out with Steve and the rest of the guys was really good. I'm really glad I did it. All we have to do is make it pay off on the field."
Suggs is the Ravens' all-time leader in sacks (114½) and forced fumbles (32), and he's second in fumble recoveries (13) and tackles (856). In 15 games last year, he had a team-leading eight sacks to go with three forced fumbles.
Ravens coaches and teammates rave about his ability to diagnose plays, set the edge against the run and provide a pass-rushing jolt at key moments of games. He has long been considered a team leader, but that role could expand this season because of the presence of young pass rushers Matthew Judon, Za'Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams on the roster.
Suggs is already delivering messages. While there has been some talk about how the current Ravens defense stacks up with past ones, Suggs told his defensive teammates to carve out their own reputation.
"You don't want to use the word 'potential.' You just want to go out there and be great," Suggs said. "I think what we need to focus on going forward is trying to get out of the shadow of the past great Ravens defenses and make something our own. You brought it up last time how I'm the only one here from those defenses, but this is a new defense. We have to make our own mark and do some great things. You want to be ranked No. 1 and not only that, you want division titles and Super Bowl titles."