In the first two articles of this series, we identified Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin and Linebacker DeAndre Levy as two reasons the Lions defense would be even better in 2015 than it was a year prior. Possessing a couple of formidable linebackers and a cunning defensive coordinators ensure the proverbial teeth of the Lions defense remain intact. However, in order for the unit to retain its metaphorical bite it’s critical the interior of the defensive line remain dominant at the point of attack.

With the departure of Ndamukong Suh many have suggested Detroit’s defense lost so much of its bite this off-season the 2015 is more accurately represented by a common house cat more than the King of the Jungle. Although this debate rages on with fervor outside Allen Park, don’t expect Teryl Austin to add his voice to that chorus. Dave Birkett records Austin’s reaction to the Ngata acquisition as thus:

 “We tell our guys all the time, you go in, the No. 1 thing you want to do is stop the run, and Haloti’s a premier run-stuffer,” Austin said. “I don’t know if there’s any [one] better in the league. He’s [THAT] good. And from the people that aren’t familiar with him, I had an opportunity to be in there with him for three years and just know the difference he makes up front.”

 

Versatility

What may have excited Austin most may have been the level of versatility Ngata’s arrival adds to the defense. A multiple-fronts defense is that in name only unless the unit actually aligns in diverse fronts. With the old guard in place, the 2014 Lions were only able the o position interior linemen in either the 1 or the 3 technique. With Ngata in the lineup, the 2015 Lions defense can truly embrace its multi-front heritage by expanding the parameters of the defense such that one could see a few downs wherein 3-4 and 4-6 fronts make their debuts in Detroit. James Ihedigbo, Ngata’s former (and now present) teammate went so far as to say the Lions could vary their fronts on a game by game basis to create favorable matchups for the defense.

Still in his prime

‘Everyone’ seemed to remember 2014 as a career year for Ndamukong Suh. ‘Everyone’ seemed to forget it was also a career year for Haloti Ngata. Left to media persons, one would surmise Ndamukong Suh was the only top five defensive tackle in the NFL who left the club that drafted him while still in his prime. There were actually two such players making that transition this off-season: Ndamukong Suh and the far less heralded, Haloti Ngata. No one from the Lions organization had to sell the Miami fan base on Suh but coaches and front office personnel from both the Lions and Ravens have felt the need to do so with Ngata. Among those touting the move were the editors at Pro Football Focus who state, “The Lions have acquired Ngata off the back of a resurgent season in Baltimore where he earned his highest overall grade of the PFF Era.” They go on to say, “Ngata was productive as well as immovable against the run and earned positive grades as a pass rusher in all but three of his games.” Not content with merely releasing an article on Ngata’s bounce back season, the editors at PFF also took to social media and tweeted out the following image:

By the numbers

When looking at cumulative statistical data over the past five seasons the numbers sway heavily in Suh’s favor; at least they seem to upon first glance. Suh headlined columns because he produced sacks and tackles for loss at near unprecedented levels for the position. For example, over the past five seasons Suh accumulated over twice as many sacks with 36 as did Ngata who only produced 14.  Additionally, Suh’s total tackles for loss (66) over a five season timespan were nearly three times greater than Ngata’s (24). For most, the above became indisputable empirical evidence Suh was the vastly superior to Ngata. However, that conclusion is ill-conceived as it is based almost exclusively on what Suh does behind the line of scrimmage.

If one confines their opinion exclusively to pressures, sacks and tackles for loss then Suh is substantiated as a significantly more valuable player than Ngata. However, when total tackles, passes defensed and a unique metric I use to evaluate interior defenders (i.e., number of seasons in which they’ve helped teammates to 100+ tackles) are factored into the equation, the difference between the two isn’t so glaring. Consider this, since 2010 Haloti Ngata actually had more tackles (265) than Ndamukong Suh (238). Ngata also had nearly twice as many passes defensed with 29 versus Suh’s 15. Finally, Ngata helped teammates to 100+ tackle seasons five times while Suh only met this benchmark twice.

The following chart provides a visual representation of the data referenced above. Please note this data is only inclusive of aggregate tabulations from 2010 to 2014.

Beyond the numbers

More than any other sport, American Football is a team game. Players can amass stats, but if their accomplishments don’t translate into team wins history tends to place an asterisks of sorts beside their names. For example, Dan Marino retired as one of the most prolific passers in NFL History. Despite his accomplishments Marino scarcely enters the discussion as one of the best ever at his position. Ironically, another Dolphins player in the person of newly acquired defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is on a parallel career trajectory.

Despite how heavily decorated he’s been in recent weeks, there’s no escaping the team’s win-loss record over Suh’s Detroit tenure. In three of his five seasons Suh was part of teams that concluded the year with losing records. What’s more, Suh leaves Detroit with his ability to elevate a defense in question. In fact, it could be argued prior to Austin’s arrival, Suh’s most successful individual seasons corresponded with some of the worst for his team. No earnest statistician would attempt to portend an inverse causality relationship exists between Suh’s production and Lions, however it is fair to include team defensive rankings as part of Suh’s body of work. While there is some debate as to which player is the more singularly talented, there’s very little debate over which player has added more value to his team over the past five seasons.

Effective marketing has left many with the indelible image of the Baltimore Ravens as team abundant in defensive talent. The true state of things is the Lions have done far better in building their defensive roster in recent years than have the Ravens. The core of the Ravens defense has been in decline for most of the past five seasons while Lions core defenders have actually ascended into their primes. Players like DeAndre Levy, Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay and Glover Quin flanked Suh in Detroit while Ngata has been surrounded by older players who relied even more heavily on his ability to absorb blockers because their waning athleticism prevented them from consistently making plays on their own. Despite being surrounded by players who’d been slowed by age, Ngata’s defenses categorically outperformed Suh’s in terms of 5-year averages.

The following graph depicts average defensive rankings for both the Ravens and Lions as delineated into subcategories for total, rushing, passing and scoring defenses. Suh’s Lions finished no better than 14th best in any subcategory; Ngata’s Ravens finished no worse than 12th. Please keep in mind lower is better.

A man of sacrifice

Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com captured an elucidating statement from Ngata wherein Ngata waxed introspective about his role within a defense. “I picture myself as a sacrifice player where I hold up guys for other players to make plays,” writes Rothstein.  And therein is the fundamental difference between Suh and Ngata. Suh is the quintessential interior playmaker while Ngata willingly dons the role of facilitator. In 2015, the Detroit Lions will have the great fortune of yet again fielding a defense that is anchored by one of the five most dominant defensive tackles in the NFL. While Suh & Ngata are both dynamic players that enjoyed career best seasons in 2014 they leave vastly different legacies behind. I believe the Lions received the better end of the ‘deal.’ What’s your take? Please leave comments below or tweet me at @dmacali818.