First in rushing defense. Second in total yards allowed. Third in scoring. Fourth in yards per play allowed.
No matter you quantify it, the Detroit Lions had a great defensive season in 2014.
A big reason — great players.
Three first-rounders on the defensive line. Two Pro Bowlers. And one All-Pro: Ndamukong Suh.
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A year later, Suh’s in a new city with a new supporting cast. And in his mind, a better one.
“I don’t have a problem saying this, but I think personally we have more talent than we had in the No. 1 defense last year in Detroit,” Suh said Wednesday.
Bold words, for sure, that will be heard all the way up in Michigan.
But context is important. Suh made a point to say that there are no guarantees that a more talented defense would necessarily mean more effective.
Still, Suh’s remarks only further elevate the already sky-high expectations for this first-team Dolphins defense, which hasn’t allowed a point in five drives this preseason.
“One of the reasons I came here, is this team, and especially this defense, has great, great talent,” Suh said. “It’s a matter of us putting it together. We don’t play on paper. We don’t get to go against Atlanta [Saturday] or Washington Redskins that first game and say, ‘Hey, this is our paper, this is our talent, here’s your talent. We win because on paper we look a little bit better than you.”
Suh continued: “You don’t know what’s going to happen until guys come together, understand what they’re going to do, and we create a camaraderie, create an understanding of how everybody works together as a unit and go from there. Every year is different. The year before, look at Detroit, we were 7-9 [and then] 11-6. Things change.”
Things change not just year-to-year in the NFL, but day-to-day. The Dolphins have already lost starting safety Louis Delmas for the season with a torn ACL. A quad strain will keep corner Jamar Taylor out Saturday against the Falcons.
Plus, the Dolphins defense was far from elite a year ago. Only 12 teams allowed more points than Miami.
But center Mike Pouncey has noticed great improvement in 2014, and Suh’s the biggest reason.
“That defense is unbelievable, and we’re fortunate enough to go against them every day to prepare ourselves on Sunday to go against a good defense like that,” Pouncey said.
When asked of Suh’s assessment of Miami’s superior personnel, Pouncey responded: “If Suh’s saying it, then you’ve got to believe it, right? He knows football really well. Obviously, he really believes in it, because he wouldn’t say it if he didn’t and I really do think we’ve got a really good defense. We’ve been top five around here for a lot of years, and I don’t see why we can’t keep that going.”
This sort of confident talk has been the rule, and not the exception, throughout the organization this year. It began on Day One of training camp, when Stephen Ross said he expects his team to win in 2015. It continued when Ryan Tannehill called the current group of skill position players the best he has played with as a pro.
“You have to have confidence and faith in your teammates and in yourself if you’re ever going to be able to accomplish anything as a team on the field,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said Wednesday. “Yeah, they should feel good about themselves ... [but] we have a lot of work to do before Sept. 13.”
Suh addressed a range of issues during his weekly media availability Wednesday, including the growing calls around the league to reduce the number of exhibition games from four to two — or fewer.
Some inside the Dolphins locker room believe the preseason as a whole — beginning with the late-July start of training camp — is way long and pointed to the rash of season-ending injuries as evidence.
Suh sees it like this: the Dolphins really have six preseason games this year, counting the two joint practices with Carolina. He didn’t complain about the length Wednesday, but did question the wisdom of cutting the roster to 75 players before the fourth preseason game, which is played predominantly by bottom-of-the-roster guys.
Suh, who signed the most lucrative contract ever for a defensive player this offseason, also spoke about the impact he has on his new team, off the field as well as on.
“Over the last two or three years of my career, I’ve matured and understood I can grow, not only individually, but collectively being part of a defense, as a team,” Suh said. “There are certain younger guys that look up to me. I’ve always understood that people look up to me from making a play standpoint.
“But it’s a guy like [former Lions teammate] Kyle Vanden Bosch who makes plays, talks the talk and walks the walk, and does everything of that nature and has bigger influences, conversations with somebody on the side, giving them advice or whatever it may be.”