September 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

In his own way, Ndamukong Suh has taken Lions by the reins

Allen Park — A few weeks ago, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh decided it was time for a group hug with the media, extending his arms with a welcoming grin.

“I love you all — let’s have a big hug,” he said, laughing at the puzzled response from reporters gathered around his locker stall. “I’m serious! I want a big hug.”

This was news, of course, coming from a guy who’d mostly kept the local media at arm’s length his rookie season. And I think it was encouraging news for the Lions, who’ve been waiting to see more of this from Suh, their Pro Bowl defensive tackle now entering his fourth NFL season.

Not so much his warm, cuddly side — Suh’s job is to shed blockers and put the squeeze on opposing quarterbacks, not us. But a willingness to openly embrace the full responsibility that comes with that massive contract and his status as one of this franchise’s cornerstone players — that’s what was missing his first few years in the league.

“He’s a young veteran,” Schwartz said at the beginning of the Lions offseason workouts. “It’s time for him and a lot of other guys to start showing that leadership.”

Schwartz was right. It’s time. Past time, in some cases. But with the Lions at a crossroads in 2013 — win now, or else — it’s that young core of players that’ll ultimately decide the fate of the team that brought them here.

Coaching jobs are on the line, presumably. Front-office fates, as well. And after last season’s public splintering — full of selfish acts and a stunning lack of self-awareness, from the coach on down — there does seem to be an acknowledgement this group truly needs to come together if it’s going to get anywhere.

“It’s not just the work we’ve put in,” said Dominic Raiola, the Lions veteran center. “It’s not just the Lions offense, not just the Lions defense. We really made a conscious effort to make it be about the Lions.”

And for that, Raiola adds, “A lot of credit needs to be given to the younger guys. Suh’s really come around.”

Front and center

That’s apparent in ways big and small, with Suh taking rookie defensive end Ezekiel Ansah under his wing and taking a front-row seat for team stretching before each practice now — he’s no longer sitting in the back of the class. He’s even taking the initiative as a secretary of defense, if you will. Suh was busy texting veteran teammates over the summer, planning and organizing and delegating. (“That’s what leaders do,” cornerback Chris Houston said. “[They] don’t wait for the coach to get on us.”)

No one’s asking Suh to be Ray Lewis or to pretend to be something he’s not. But for a defense with 11 starters now age 28 or younger, there’s a leadership void that needed to be filled, particularly up front, where everything has to start for this group.

Questions remain about the revamped Lions offense, with Reggie Bush in the fold and the competition for starting jobs in the trenches still unfolding. But after an offseason overhaul of the defense, it’s up to Suh and tag-team tackle Nick Fairley, in particular, to set the disruptive tone.

There are more playmakers behind them this year, it appears, with the addition of Glover Quin and the return of Louis Delmas — for now — at the safety position, bolstering the back end. Yet it’s at the point of attack, where the Lions have invested three top-15 picks and gone to great lengths — literally — to establish an identity, that the chaos must be generated. The Lions had 34 sacks last season — ranked 20th in the NFL — and saw their takeaway total drop from fifth-best in the league (34 in 2011) to fifth-worst (17) in 2012. If there’s going to be a turnaround in the overall record for the Lions, there’ll have to be a reversal of fortune right there.

“They have a great front,” New England quarterback Tom Brady said after a 40-9 Week 3 exhibition loss in Detroit. “I mean, they have some guys that can really rush the quarterback and put a lot of pressure on the ball. … They’ll have a very good team this year.”

Making a change

That’s high praise coming from a three-time Super Bowl champ and two-time league MVP. It’s also meaningless if the Lions don’t deal with pressure better than they did a year ago.

“How to handle success?” said linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who keeps referencing a renewed “sense of urgency” he feels in the locker room. “I think we learned that the hard way last year.”

They seem to have cleaned up their act off the field, steering clear of trouble thus far in 2013 the way they couldn’t — or didn’t — in 2012. More than likely, they’ll need a few reminders on the importance of doing the same on the field, though.

The personal-foul problems cropped up again this exhibition season, both in the loss at Cleveland and in the victory over New England, highlighted by Willie Young’s taunting of Brady. But as it was with the Tennessee defenses Schwartz coached before arriving in Detroit, living on the edge is part of the deal, I guess.

“You know what? We’re Lions,” said Delmas, the high-energy sparkplug in the secondary. “Once you open that cage up, once you let that lion out of the cage, he’s gonna get aggressive.”

Maybe so, though the fans in Detroit have grown tired of defending the indefensible. Tired of the losing, too.

But listening to Suh talk this summer — “I think everybody has an opportunity to grow up and change their ways,” he said — there’s at least some hope this pride of Lions has built a better coalition.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, beginning his fourth season, has quietly become what the Lions have needed for more than a decade: An enigmatic leader. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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