OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs spent a decade chasing the elusive Super Bowl glory he finally tasted at the end of the 2012 season.
But he couldn’t have imagined how difficult it was going to be defending that championship following the retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Ed Reed, leaving the Ravens without two Hall of Fame players and leaders who were the heart and soul of the organization. Of course, a myriad of reasons explained an 8-8 season in which the Ravens missed the playoffs, ranging from a porous offensive line and nonexistent running game to an otherwise-solid defense that struggled to create turnovers and get off the field in the fourth quarter.
Suggs and his veteran teammates said all the right things last season when asked how they’d possibly replace the leadership void created by the departures of Lewis, Reed, and other veterans, claiming there were more than enough voices ready to handle the changes. But the 31-year-old linebacker acknowledged Wednesday it was not only “very agonizing” to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007 but also draining going through his first season without two men who’d been older brothers to him for the first 10 years of his career.
“I had those older guys around to build, and it was a period of adjustment,” Suggs said. “It was weird, and it transpired onto the field — not having those guys there. But, the most [important] thing we can learn from last year about those guys not being there is those were once-in-a-lifetime guys — Ed Reed and Ray Lewis — and all we can be is ourselves. They’re not going to come walking through the door to help us win another championship. All you can be is yourself, and that should be enough.”
Even though Suggs posted double-digit sacks for the fifth time in his career in 2013, his play down the stretch didn’t help the Ravens’ push for a sixth straight trip to the postseason as he collected only one sack in the final eight games, leading many to speculate he was playing hurt. His 10 sacks were enough to earn him his sixth invitation to the Pro Bowl, but his play against both the run and pass deteriorated at an alarming rate with four games in which he posted one or no tackles.
With the Ravens needing a win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 to sneak into the playoffs, Suggs and fellow pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil combined for one tackle and zero sacks in a 34-17 loss that resulted in the Ravens staying home in January. Asked to reflect on his up-and-down season at this week’s mandatory minicamp, Suggs didn’t hide behind what could have been the convenient excuse of saying he was hurt.
“One of the things was you get a little cold and you gain a little weight,” said Suggs about the second half of the season. “I probably put on a little too much weight down the stretch there. But that was one of my big focuses going into this year. Definitely, if I keep my weight down, I can have a strong finish. I think I was pretty much healthy.”
Head coach John Harbaugh went out of his way to praise Suggs for his conditioning level upon reporting to Owings Mills earlier this week. The veteran linebacker likes the changes made to both sides of the ball, citing the positive vibe created by the hiring of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
The linebacker also complimented the free-agent signing of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers like he did during Wednesday’s practice when he got into a scuffle with cornerback Lardarius Webb. It’s the kind of attitude that was lacking on the offensive side of the ball last season following the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
“It’s good to have that. We had it a few years ago in 81,” Suggs said. “And it’s good to have that fire back on that side of the ball, [to] have somebody who will go out there and jab back with us and compete.”
In addition to acquiring Smith and a few other veterans such as center Jeremy Zuttah and tight end Owen Daniels, the Ravens spent a large portion of their offseason re-signing their own players, including a four-year contract extension for Suggs. The deal did provide short-term relief in lowering his 2014 salary cap figure from $12.4 million to $7.8 million, but general manager Ozzie Newsome made a $16 million gamble in guaranteed money that Suggs’ second half last season was more of an aberration than a preview of what’s to come for a linebacker entering his 12th season.
So, who is the real Suggs at this stage of his career? The man who looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate while accumulating nine sacks in the first eight games last year or the worn-down player who failed to set the edge against the run and provided little pressure on the quarterback down the stretch?
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but Suggs appears determined to prove he’s closer to the player he was in the first half of the 2013 season based on what kind of shape he was in upon arriving at the team facility this week. And he made it clear he’s recommitted to just being himself after struggling to adjust to life without Lewis or Reed for the first time in his NFL career.
“You’re going to always have something to prove when you’re playing this game,” Suggs said. “You never want to hit your cruising altitude; you always want to be ascending with your game. You can always get better.”