REMADE IN DETROIT

Three years ago they suffered through a winless season. Now, behind an offense that loves the comeback and a defense with a warrior at its core, the unbeaten Lions are restoring the roar
October 09, 2011

The Rub BBQ Pub opened in downtown Detroit two summers ago, a bold bet made during the economic downturn. The owners put 30 television sets in the restaurant and a dozen Michigan beers on tap, among them Atwater Dirty Blonde, Kid Rock Badass and Motor City Ghetto Blaster. They're served up alongside standard bar grub—sliders and wings—and entrees like the Bases Loaded (brisket, pulled pork and ribs) and the Joe Louis (smoked turkey leg). Once a week, in homage to a recent arrival, the Rub offers an additional menu item: the Suh Burger. "It's a quarter-pound burger with chili, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, jalape√±os and corn," says Chris Eid, one of the restaurant's managers. "It's huge."

On Sunday at the pub, which sits a block from the Tigers' Comerica Park and two blocks from the Lions' Ford Field on Adams Street, upwards of 200 patrons squeezed in to watch America's Team take on what has long been America's Doormat. Three years ago Detroit became the first NFL team to go 0--16, prompting a coaching change, a different logo and a new round of old jokes.

How do you keep the Detroit Lions out of your yard? Put up a goal post.

This year the Lions jumped out to a 3--0 start that included a 26--23 win at Minnesota in Week 3, when they overcame a 20--0 halftime deficit. The old jokes yielded to a new question: Could this team be for real? But when Detroit fell into a 24-point hole on Sunday in Dallas, a familiar foreboding set in. "Everybody was just sitting here waiting for the Tigers [playoff game against the Yankees]," Eid says. "Then the second half started, and the Lions began scoring, and everybody just went crazy. Detroit football has been the butt of jokes for so long—even Jay Leno talks bad about us—but there is nothing but excitement now. The Lions have restored the roar."

After years as a civic embarrassment, the Lions have built something so powerful that their former selves have become unrecognizable. In Sunday's 34--30 defeat of the Cowboys they completed their second straight comeback from 20 or more points down—the first NFL team to accomplish that feat—behind a young nucleus and an excitable coach in Jim Schwartz, who tweets his music playlist on the bus ride to games. (Sunday's featured Pantera's head-banging anthem, Cowboys from Hell.)

Even before the kickoff Dallas tried to push the Lions around like old times. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan told The Dallas Morning News last week that his unit faces two better receivers in practice than Detroit's 6'5" Calvin Johnson. The Lions were not amused. When Johnson caught two touchdowns from Matthew Stafford, including the game-winner over cornerback Terence Newman with 1:39 left, Schwartz opened his postgame news conference with a message for Ryan: "I'm just glad that the third-best receiver on their team is on our team."

Who saw this day coming? Stafford, after an injury-plagued first two years, is playing like the franchise quarterback he was expected to be when he was drafted No. 1 out of Georgia. Johnson, the second pick out of Georgia Tech in 2007, is making his case as the league's best player, period. The defense, ranked last in the NFL in 2009, was a healthy 11th after Sunday. The Lions have swagger. The city of Detroit has belief. The NFL may never be the same.

While Stafford and Johnson lead the resurgent offense, at the center of the defensive rebirth is left tackle Ndamukong Suh, the son of Cameroonian and Jamaican immigrants who wants to finish his playing career in Detroit. Not since the days of Barry Sanders has a player so rapidly become the proud face of Lions football, his physical play reminiscent of the mayhem once caused by Dick (Night Train) Lane and Alex Karras. At a time of 350-pound interior defensive linemen, Suh is a lithe-by-comparison 307. He's quick enough to dart past offensive linemen but strong enough to bowl them over. On a fourth-and-goal from the Lions' one, with Detroit trailing 7--0 in the first quarter, Suh shed his block, dived into the backfield and helped thwart Felix Jones short of the goal line. The failure to score would come back to haunt Dallas.

On most downs Suh draws double teams—often the guard and the center—but sometimes a running back too. "The things teams are doing, trying to chip him with backs, you usually don't see that," says Detroit defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "Teams usually chip defensive ends, not tackles, but they know they can't just leave a guard on him, so they bring over the center or chip him with a back."

Says Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, "You have to know where he is, and as a quarterback that's hard to fathom because he's not a defensive end or linebacker. He's in the box every play, but he causes a lot of problems. Anytime he's one-on-one, get the ball out."

Before Suh became a hero (and a hamburger) in Detroit, he reached deity status at Nebraska. He thrived under the tutelage of brothers Bo and Carl Pelini, the Cornhuskers' coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, who both arrived after Suh's sophomore season. "He was used to more of a penetration system," Carl says. "I said to him, 'Big man, I can get any guard to ride upfield with you, but I can't teach him to block you no matter how much I work on it.' He became more about defeating blocks to make plays. It became a craft. He was always looking for an edge, studying opponents, almost to where it would drive you crazy."

After deciding to stay at Nebraska for his senior year, Suh kept pestering Carl in the off-season. "He didn't want to just talk about tackle play," Carl says. "He wanted me to explain the defense, the concepts, where the linebackers, safeties and corners fit. He thought about the overall picture and scheme. He wanted to know why. The scouts started coming around and asking me, 'Will he be a good pro?' I'd say, 'He already is.'"

And he continued to be, exploding into the NFL as the No. 2 pick in 2010, tearing through blockers for 10 sacks and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. But Suh's rugged style has presented the NFL with a conundrum at a time when player safety is a priority. The league's gatekeepers have fined him three times already (for a total of $42,500) for hits on quarterbacks, and he has drawn a number of personal foul penalties. The first fine came last year for a hit on the Browns' Jake Delhomme in the preseason, when Suh yanked at Delhomme's helmet as if it were a stubborn bottle top. The second infraction, during the 2010 regular season, was against the Bears' Jay Cutler, who was racing downfield when Suh chased him down, unleashing a forearm that launched Cutler into the turf. In the first preseason game this year Suh grabbed Bengals rookie Andy Dalton high and slammed him to the ground.

Against Dallas, Suh was penalized for roughing Tony Romo. On a third-quarter play, he came in unimpeded on a stunt and decked Romo with a lefthanded blow to the face mask just as the QB released. The penalty negated a third-down incompletion and kept alive a drive that led to Dallas's final points. Suh was so angry with the call that he kicked over a trash can on the sideline.

"The Delhomme play, I agreed with [the fine]—my mistake," he says. "[But] I feel like I make it tough on officials to officiate against me because I'm attacking. Nobody's seen a specimen like myself. I hate to say it that way, but it kind of is that way. When you combine speed and power, things are going to look bad when I hit somebody."

The league says it is not singling him out. "We have not talked to Suh or the team," spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail. "We review [all] plays and hold players accountable for their actions during those plays."

Such conversations about Suh's physical style date back to his schoolyard days playing soccer in Portland, Ore. Bigger and stronger than his peers, he learned early that he could send opponents tumbling with a hip check—or make their jaws drop with his power. "The way I found out was in my elementary years playing soccer and shooting at the goal and seeing the goal shatter, and knocking kids down," he says.

Says his mother, Bernadette, "I had to travel with a birth certificate because they would question whether he was the right age for the team he was on. He was so much bigger than the other kids, and he was aggressive."

Suh, 24, insists he won't change his approach. He also says he won't consider himself a dirty player unless his mother does. "I don't see him as a dirty player, and I'm not sure what people mean when they say he is," Bernadette says. "It bothers me because from what little I know about the game, he wants to make sure he makes plays—and that plays aren't made on him."

Says Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who has coached in the NFL since 1982, "The problem with the league is, they've never seen a defensive tackle like this. He's the best football player at that position I've ever seen."

Suh draws a direct line from his play to his mom, an elementary school teacher, and to his dad, Michael, a contractor who was born in Cameroon. (Ndamukong, which means "house of spears," was the name of Michael's grandfather, a 7'3" police chief in the Ngema tribe.) When Ndamukong was 12 years old, his father took him out on a job for the first time. "A lot of kids don't like that," Michael says. "They like to stay home and watch TV and play games. He followed me on vacation time when he was off school. He saw how I was doing things, how determined I am. That got into him."

To this day Michael drives around Portland in a blue SUH'S EQUIPMENT van, its trunk stocked with the instruments of his trade: copper tubing and Freon for refrigeration, PVC and metal venting for furnaces, an assortment of tools to both build machines and break them down. "People see me in my van and stop me," Michael says. "They say, 'We saw your son on TV. He's a millionaire. What in the heck are you doing working?'"

"What should I do?" Michael usually responds. "Stay home and eat and get fat?"

Across Detroit, there's an air of regeneration. The Lions, who haven't made the playoffs since 1999, are 4--0 for the first time since 1980, tied for first in the NFC North with Super Bowl champion Green Bay, the league's only other unbeaten team. Detroit hosts the division-rival Bears in prime time on Oct. 10, the Lions' first Monday Night Football appearance in a decade. They don't meet the Packers until Week 12—but that may be the first Thanksgiving game in years that means as much in the standings to the Lions as it does to their opponents.

And as the revelers in the Rub BBQ Pub will attest, Suh has become an integral figure in the community. He attends high school football games, sits courtside to watch the Pistons, drives Six Mile with his windows down and waves to the kids on the street. After hearing that the football equipment at Frederick Douglass College Preparatory Academy had been stolen, Suh, running back Jahvid Best and a Quicken Loans sister company donated helmets, cleats and gloves in time for their game last Friday.

"They showed [Suh] on TV at the game," says Tyrone Winfrey, president of the Detroit Board of Education. "For him to take the time to do that meant a lot to those young men. When I look at Detroit and the shots we've taken with crime and unemployment, to have the Lions and Tigers winning, we are truly grateful. And to have a positive role model like Ndamukong Suh come to our city, I'm excited about the young people who will be impacted by his success."

After a recent practice Suh sat on the team's nearly empty field, going over all the mistakes he made in his rookie season. "I have a lot of things to learn about this game," Suh says. "There are a lot of plays I left out on the field last year. I can think back to two games where I missed five sacks. Go back and look at all the other games where I had a finger [on the quarterback]. Until I have a perfect season, I won't ever be able to say I've reached the pinnacle. And when I do have a perfect season, the next goal is to match it. I want a championship, and not just one. I want multiples."

His black and red T-shirt bore an image of Kid Rock and three words written in block letters that spoke of a football revival: MADE IN DETROIT.

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WHO SAW THIS DAY COMING? THE LIONS HAVE SWAGGER. THE CITY OF DETROIT HAS BELIEF. THE NFL MAY NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN.

"I MAKE IT TOUGH ON OFFICIALS BECAUSE I'M ATTACKING." SAYS SUH OF HIS PERSONAL FOULS. "WHEN YOU COMBINE SPEED AND POWER, THINGS ARE GOING TO LOOK BAD WHEN I HIT SOMEBODY."

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONROCK CITY So powerful in the middle that he commands double teams—and sometimes even the help of a back—Suh has 12 sacks in 20 games on a defense that's risen from last in the league in '09 to 11th this year.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by GREG NELSONTOP CATS Stafford (9) and Johnson (right), both first-round picks, have developed into a formidable combo; they connected eight times for 96 yards against Dallas, including two TDs. PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONWHO'S THE BIG D NOW? Detroit's comeback from 24 down was keyed by the defense—linebacker Bobby Carpenter (above) picked off Romo for a third-quarter TD, and end Willie Young (79) sacked the Cowboys' quarterback to help snuff out Dallas's final drive. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (YOUNG)[See caption above]
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