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Niyo: Suh's return serves painful reminder for Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Rams' Ndamukong Suh gets a horse-collar penalty bringing down Lions running back Zach Zenner in the third quarter.

Detroit — Ndamukong Suh always saw things a bit differently during his time in Detroit. And while he listened to what was said about him, he often heard only what he wanted to hear.

So when the Ford Field crowd acknowledged his return Sunday, a noisy chorus that first rang out as the Suh made back-to-back tackles on the Lions’ opening drive, the Rams defensive tackle took it in stride.


“I don’t believe it was a boo,” he said, grinning the way a man does when he’s in a better place.

No, the fans were chanting, “Suuhhh!” he insisted, and even when he drew a flag for a late hit on Matthew Stafford in the closing minutes of the Rams’ 30-16 victory, he opted to look on the bright side. Which, again, is easy to do when your team is 11-1 and passing out T-shirts and hats celebrating an NFC West division title in the visitors' locker room.

“My calling was ‘Suh,’” he said. “So they give me a nice calling.”

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Call it what you will, a homecoming or something else. But however it sounded, Suh’s return served as a reminder of what’s been missing for most of the four years since he last played for the Lions, anchoring a dominant defensive front that helped this franchise to its best season in nearly a quarter century.

And what might’ve been, too, watching him now in a tag-team role with Aaron Donald for the Rams.

Donald showed again why he’s the most dominant defensive force in the NFL, finishing with four tackles for loss and two sacks, including a strip-sack fumble recovery midway through the fourth quarter that effectively ended the Lions’ upset hopes.

“He’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff said of the NFL's sack leader. “ And I try to get a gauge: I’ll ask the head judge, if he’s having a week of havoc, ‘How does 99 look?’ and they’ll say, ‘He’s the best I’ve ever seen.’ You hear that pretty often.”

'It's in the past'

Fans in Detroit hear that and I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do other than order another beer. This could’ve been their Hollywood tandem a few years ago, had Lions general manager Martin Mayhew gone ahead and done what some in the organization wanted him to do in the spring of 2014. Instead, the Lions used the 10th overall pick that year on tight end Eric Ebron, bypassing Donald, among an array of other Pro Bowl talents.

The Lions went on to win 11 games that season, losing a wild-card playoff game in Dallas that Suh nearly missed due to a suspension for stomping Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field. (The league rescinded the suspension a day later.) And it was after that controversial loss — one of Suh’s best games in a reckless five-year stint in Detroit — that he broke down in tears at his postgame press conference, saying, “We put it all out there. I just didn't expect this outcome. It's sickening."

That’s a moment he referenced again Sunday when the questions turned to his feelings about his former team, one he left in March 2015 for a six-year, $114-million deal in Miami that trumped the Lions’ days-late, dollars-short offer.

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“I’m gonna continue to refrain from speaking about the organization,” Suh said. “It’s in the past. And like I said before, the city is amazing to me. … And to all the fans in Detroit, if you go back to ’14, I was emotional when I left, because it meant so much to me. So I’m gonna leave it there.”

Again, that’s easy for him to do now, given where he is. Things didn’t work out as planned in Miami — at least not considering the price the Dolphins paid — but a one-year, $14 million deal that brought him to L.A. now has Suh, who's not the five-time All-Pro force he once was, in a spot he has long craved. He’s 0-3 in his career in the playoffs — two of those losses with the Lions — but the Rams and their high-powered offense are in the driver’s seat to win home-field advantage as the NFC’s top seed this postseason.

In that sense, this was merely another business trip for Suh, though he had plenty of family and friends in attendance, even pausing during pregame warm-ups for a hug and a photo with his father, Michael, and his mother, Bernadette, on the sideline.

“It’s a great feeling,” Suh said. “I enjoyed my time back here. But now it’s back to business in L.A.”

No analysis

As for the business of what’s wrong in Detroit, where the Lions are now tied for the fifth-worst record in the league at 4-8, he’ll leave that others to figure out, a task that seems as impossible now as it was when he was drafted back in 2010.

“That’s not my job, evaluating an organization and why they’re struggling,” said Suh, who remains close with the Lions’ Ziggy Ansah and shared a few laughs with other Lions’ staff on the field. “They’ve had some tough times. We had some good times when I was here, which I enjoyed every bit of. I think Jim Caldwell and Jim Schwartz in his time did great jobs, and we saw success.

“But things happen. In the NFL, each year is gonna be different, you take ’em as they come. And hopefully you can build off different talent, different people and have success but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case here.”

Suh played coy with the Los Angeles media earlier in the week, declining to share his feelings on the team that drafted him, signed him to a record-setting rookie deal that paid him more than $64 million, and ultimately let him walk in 2015. He also omitted Stafford from his list of favorite quarterback teammates when the subject came up, opting instead to rave about Jay Cutler, with whom he spent just one season in Miami.

Stafford called that “classic Suh” when asked about it Thursday. And not surprisingly, Suh took a few shots at the Lions quarterback when he had the chance. He hit him a bit late on the final play of the first quarter, but wasn’t flagged for it. But with 1:41 to play in the fourth, Suh lowered his shoulder and sent a scrambling Stafford hard to the turf well after he’d released an incomplete pass intended for Luke Willson.

Out came the flag, and the boos — or the Suhs, depending on your perspective. Asked later how it felt to hit Stafford, Suh smiled, “It’s always good. It’s been a long time coming.”

What did he mean by that?

“I mean, I’ve seen him a ton of times in practice,” Suh said. “I had an opportunity to be on the opposite side of the ball and get after him. … We nodded heads, but he and I have a mutual respect for each other. At the end of the day, he’s a competitor, I’m a competitor. I wanna win. And we got the win.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo