Ndamukong Suh has already built a reputation for being a dominant, but sometimes dirty, player. (ZUMAPRESS.com)
The Lions have talked for years about "changing the culture" in the locker room. It wasn't until the 2010 draft that the franchise found a player to help make that transition.
Detroit hasn't finished over .500 since going 9-7 in 2000 and hasn't made the playoffs since 1999, so when it took Ndamukong Suh No. 2 overall, the challenge wasn't just for Suh to help make the defense better. The Lions wanted Suh to be the face of the franchise, the man that they built their entire defense around.
They wanted his no-nonsense, physical presence on the field to be the example for the rest of the roster to follow.
Guess what? It's working. With some shrewd moves to stockpile talent around Suh -- Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley -- Detroit has quickly formed one of the league's best defensive lines. And Suh has taken to the role of team leader, on and off the field.
The only downside so far is that Suh's crossed the line on a few occasions now: a body slam of Andy Dalton earlier this preseason, a forearm to Jay Cutler's head last year and a near-decapitation of Jake Delhomme during 2010 preseason action.
Suh didn't receive a penalty for that play, where he pretty clearly gave Logan Mankins a shot to the face mask as Mankins was dragging down Suh's teammate, Lawrence Jackson. Suh may wind up getting fined -- he was for his three previous transgressions, including $20,000 for the hit on Dalton.
Whether or not you think those incidents add up to Suh being a dirty player (keep reading, we'll get there), one thing is very clear from the Lions' perspective: They cannot afford to see Suh suspended.
Which means that Suh finds himself walking a fine line.
The Lions badly need that intimidation factor, even that tiny bit of arrogance, especially on a defensive unit that's been so bad at times you would swear the opposition somehow talked the refs into a power play. The best defensive players, throughout NFL history, have had that mean streak, and it's especially important in the trenches.
What the Lions do not need is for the NFL to really crack down on Suh. The team (and Suh's pocketbook, surely) can handle some fines here and there. But with each call from the commissioner comes another strike against Detroit's dominating defensive tackle.
Before his second NFL regular season even starts, Suh may have lost his benefit-of-the-doubt argument. To some extent, it depends on how you -- and, more importantly, how Roger Goodell -- views Suh.
That brings us back to the argument that Suh is a dirty player. He's not. Does his aggressiveness get the better of him from time to time? Sure. Has he gone too far in taking down quarterbacks? You bet.
Branding a player as "dirty," though, is another level. Watch that play vs. the Patriots again -- the actual play, not the little, relatively harmless brouhaha with Mankins. Suh breaks through the line almost untouched. He has an absolute free and clear shot on Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
In that situation, a "dirty" player would have gone for broke and absolutely buried Brady into the turf with full force. Suh pulls up, gently shoving the Patriots' QB as he throws an incompletion.
To argue that Suh plays dirty is to ignore that he frequently has had opportunities to absolutely dismantle opposing quarterbacks and has refrained.
The problems come when he doesn't.
Even if you can excuse Suh's takedown of Cutler -- and, let's be honest, that was a borderline penalty, let alone a questionable fine -- the hits on Delhomme and Dalton were brutal, especially in an era where the NFL goes out of its way to protect its quarterbacks.
Forget about the Mankins "punch" too, since it closer to a slap-bet payoff than a Tyson uppercut. It's the vicious attacks on QBs that have put Suh in the NFL's bullseye and why he must tread lightly going forward. There is probably not a player on the Lions roster, Matthew Stafford included, that the team needs on the field more than Suh. Yet, with every transgression, Suh moves one step closer to a bigger punishment from the NFL. And no matter how valuable Suh's ferocious demeanor is to the Lions, that's a possibility they can't afford to face.