October 31, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Woo-hoo Suh! Lions have a star in rookie tackle

Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh backpedals into the end zone while facing Redskins receiver Santana Moss in the fourth quarter Sunday at Ford Field. Suh picked up a Rex Grossman fumble and took it in for the touchdown. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- The big fella was rumbling, the crowd was roaring and the game was about to be clinched. Ndamukong Suh was lugging the fumble and already starting his touchdown strut, when here came the little Washington receiver, trying to grab him, hit him, somehow stop him.

Suh turned toward Santana Moss with a surprised, irritated glare, shrugged him aside, then completed his 17-yard stomp to the end zone. And in that moment was the story of the day, and perhaps the growing story of the Lions. Suh would not be denied, and neither would the defensive line, which spent Halloween pummeling Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb.

This game marked the return of one hopeful Lions star-to-be -- and the dominating arrival of another. This was quarterback Matthew Stafford's celebrated return from a shoulder injury, and he heated up nicely after a slow start, throwing four touchdown passes.

But the seeds of the Lions' 37-25 victory over the Redskins were planted when McNabb and his replacement, Rex Grossman, kept getting planted. The Lions collected seven sacks -- two each by Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril -- and it was Bosch's clobbering of Grossman with 1:36 left that popped the ball loose, and set Suh loose.

The rookie No. 2 overall pick grabbed it and ran. You probably didn't see it live because the game wasn't on local television, but the Ford Field crowd -- a small, noisy gathering of 42,329 -- went wild. From "boo," to "boo-hoo" to "Suuuuh!" the sound has shifted, and if Suh and the defensive line can play like this, maybe the Lions won't have to bank their entire future on Stafford and super receiver Calvin Johnson.

Reason to believe

Don't get me wrong, that's a decent place to start, if both can stay healthy. And this is only a start, but it was a game of encouraging glimmers because the Lions (2-5), despite a batch of special-teams goofs, controlled this game where they historically don't, in the trenches.

"I think we're an elite group (on the defensive line) that wants to continue to prove it," Suh said. "I wouldn't say it's coming easy. I think I'm playing with a great group of guys, that's what it is."

That's a good, humble response. But for all our focus on Stafford, who plays the most important position, the Lions may have landed a bigger star in Suh.

I'm trying not to get too goofy here. (Too late, right?). But barely seven games into his rookie season, the 6-foot-4, 307-pound Suh already has 6 1/2 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery, rare numbers for a defensive tackle. As a team, the Lions have 23 sacks, 19 by linemen.

Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham have moved Suh around to create favorable matchups (commonly known as mismatches), and there's enough talent and attitude with guys like Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams to make it work.

Asked about Suh, Schwartz affixed his finest straight face.

"Probably the only thing that needs to be talked about with Suh is ball security," Schwartz said, before smirking. Oh yes, when Moss caught Suh near the goal line, there was some shrieking.

"But that shows how strong Ndamukong is, that he can just palm the football like that," Schwartz said. "He's playing outstanding. Our pass rush can be formidable if we take the run away."

The Redskins had no running game, partly because they had no running backs, which left McNabb to rumble around and make poor decisions before getting yanked. For a long time, this game was beyond ugly, and while McNabb was shaking cobwebs, Stafford was shaking rust.

But once he got untracked with Johnson, capped by the incredibly clutch 10-yard touchdown pass with 3:12 left, the Lions pulled it out. That score, on fourth-and-1, put them ahead, 28-25, and allowed them to bring out their defense for, ahem, its version of the victory formation. Avril killed one drive with a fourth-down sack and Suh finished off the last one.

"I hate to use superlatives, but (Suh) is one of the best in the game," Vanden Bosch said. "He continues to make big play after big play after big play. All the pre-draft talk was, top-five or top-10 defensive tackles are busts. He broke that label pretty quickly. There's never been a moment that's too big for him. When the game is on the line, it's almost easy for him."

Not so fast

This one wasn't easy, not for the Lions, not for the fans. But when it turned -- oh boy did it turn -- at a time (crunch time) and in a place (the trenches) it almost never turns for the Lions.

This doesn't necessarily mean they've turned some mythical corner, but they have won two in a row at home, and they dominated the sack total, led by Suh. Stafford threw 45 times, completed 26 and was sacked only once.

The Lions looked capable of squandering it several times, but didn't. When needed, they played sound, punishing football. On the day they welcomed back the guy who can make the difference on offense, they showcased the guy making a difference on defense. They keep this up, hey, they might be fun to watch after all.


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