The enduring takeaway of Ndamukong Suh’s first year as a Dolphin: a very good player who made no tangible difference in the won/loss record, had seven games with three or fewer tackles, a player who had little use for coach Joe Philbin or defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle and who rubbed some teammates and team officials the wrong way, coming off as cold or standoffish.
But much as the Dolphins’ image has changed in the past six weeks, so has Suh’s in year two of his six-year, $118 million contract. He’s still a dominant force, but his dominance is being witnessed more frequently, including critical late-game impact plays in two of the six games in this winning streak, none more important than his tackle on Colin Kaepernick near the goal-line to preserve a 31-24 Miami win last Sunday. That play was even more impressive considering Suh had been double-teamed most of that final drive before deciphering pre-snap that he wouldn’t be doubled on that final play.
Behind the scenes, two things have happened:
• Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is giving Suh more flexibility than the previous staff did to line up in different positions on the line when the two men agree it can help. Joseph said Thursday that Suh lines up in positions other than his natural left defensive tackle spot about two to four times a game.
“Every week we try to do one thing different for him just to get him off double teams,” Joseph said. “It’s usually on pass rush downs. He enjoys it and it helps us win. Last week, we probably [did it] four or five times,” with Suh playing briefly at defensive end and even a pseudo middle linebacker role as a spy on Kaepernick.
“Our blitz plan is based on Suh,” Joseph said. “He’s a decoy half the time. We put him there, we blitz over here. That helps that he can learn the nose to end, even standup ex-backer position. That helps us in the game plan weekly.”
The approach has worked: Suh, who is Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 overall defensive tackle this season, is on pace for a career-high 74 tackles (he had 61 last season) and more than seven sacks (six last season).
And Suh, who disagreed with Coyle’s approach, loves Joseph’s receptiveness to suggestions. This is the most flexibility Suh has enjoyed in a defensive system since his days in Detroit.
“Vance is one of those great coaches that allows his players to find ways to be successful,” he said. “He gives us freedom in the scheme. We have conversations on the sideline. I've had flexibility to move around [before], especially in Detroit. It comes [from the] trust your coaches have with you and agreeing.”
For example, Suh suggested moving to end on a play last week to allow him to take on 49ers tackle Joe Staley.
“There was a conversation; I was allowed to go and do that,” he said. “I have opportunities where I can call and put myself in a particular place,” noting that the other defensive linemen have similar privileges as long as it’s communicated.
“There are a lot of different ways they've been able to put me in position to make plays,” Suh said. “I enjoy this defense. I enjoy the way Vance coaches it. Same with [assistants] Jim Washburn and Terrell Williams. I’ve always enjoyed being coached by Jim Washburn. And [Adam Gase] understands what the players need. He's adjustable and adaptable to different situations.”
• Suh didn’t endear himself to many in the building last season and alienated several players when he gave a speech that he would be around longterm but wasn’t sure how many teammates would be beyond Kelvin Sheppard (who wasn’t retained) and Reshad Jones.
Suh’s popularity in the locker-room has risen dramatically because he has made an effort to fit in.
“There's definitely been a difference,” safety Michael Thomas said. “He still leads by example. He's not the most vocal leader but he's definitely made an effort to try to have a better connection with teammates and it shows.
“Everybody is not going to be that vocal leader. You don't want everybody talking. For a player of his caliber, it means something when he reaches out to you. He has a great relationship with his d-line, but even with the rest of the defense, he's always reaching out to us. It’s cool.”
Suh’s efforts to become more sociable with teammates have included inviting them to his home for an NBA Finals game in June.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips depicts a human side of Suh that is seldom seen by outsiders.
“Suh has looked out for me since I’ve been here; he’s like the only business person I really sat down and talked to about anything,” Phillips said.
“Anything he feels like it's going to help me, he's going to tell me what I need to know about it. Anything - life, money, football. We can talk about anything. He's quiet. He sticks to himself. But he has to trust you to open up to you.”
Suh, who seldom lets his guard down with reporters, was far more introspective during his session this week – both on the light-hearted side (he noted he eats French Toast on Tuesdays during the season before consuming only healthy foods beginning Wednesday) and this serious nugget:
“Everybody had a knock on me coming out of the draft that I didn't have a patented move,” he said. “The reason why is I feel I can adapt against any type of player I'm going against: power rusher, speed rusher, whatever it may be.”
So is he playing at the top of his game?
“No, not by any means. I'm a way away from being at the top of my game.”
Asked if he would like to be remembered fondly by Dolphins fans, in the same way Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas are, Suh said: “I would hope so. I plan to play at that elite level as Zach and Jason Taylor did. But I have to focus at the task at hand, and that's going out each and every week and being a dominant force for our defense and help us win.”
For my other Thursday post with a lot more Dolphins nuggets, including their scouting report on their newest roster addition and Joseph talking about a looming decision at cornerback, please click here.