The goal for Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in his first NFL season was simple -- gain respect.
To that end, he succeeded, earning an armful of honors, including the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year award along with Pro Bowl and all-pro team selections. That in turn is allowing him to pursue a more ominous objective in Year 2.
"It's gone from the point of, 'You've earned the respect and (now it's to) earn fear,'" said Suh, speaking individually and for the Lions defense. "I want to build on what I had last year individually, and as a team and a defensive line, we want people to respect us, and I felt we earned that last year. But we want people to fear us."
The Lions, who ranked 21st in total defense in 2010, have ground to cover in that area. Suh, however, clearly distinguished his potential as an interior terror. He showed up in just about every statistical category, highlighted by 66 tackles and 10sacks -- the latter of which led rookies and defensive tackles.
The 6-4, 307-pound Nebraska product also broke up three passes and intercepted one, forced a fumble and recovered another against the Washington Redskins, returning it for a 17-yard touchdown. The only thing Suh did not record was a safety, which is part of his sophomore agenda.
In praising Suh's maturity, playbook knowledge and experience, Lions coach Jim Schwartz notes that young players still must find a comfort level and fluidity at their positions before taking that next step. Schwartz thinks the 24-year-old might have found it.
"He's much improved as a pass rusher in terms of moves and techniques," Schwartz said. "Last season, he was very raw in those aspects. He's always in great shape.
"He's so much better than he was this time last year, it's like night and day. Can he be more productive? That's hard. Can he be a better player? Sure. And better defense will result."
Suh agrees: "I knew what to do and be in the right place, but there's a style of playing the game, the way you attack the game and the way we play as a defensive line. That became second nature to me late last season, so now it's a matter of picking up where I left off and taking it to that next level."
Growth appears to be the obvious theme as Detroit (6-10 in 2010) enters today's preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals eager to follow up its season-ending, four-game winning streak and become a playoff contender. At first glance, that's a tall task, given the Lions' recent struggles and an NFC North featuring the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, conference runner-up Chicago Bears and a revamped Minnesota Vikings squad including quarterback Donovan McNabb.
On the other hand, the Lions' closing roar included victories against the Packers and Vikings along with road wins vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins. Their final five games were decided by seven points or fewer.
Defensively, the Lions think the components are there and point to last year's arrivals of Suh and free agent end Kyle Vanden Bosch (49tackles, four sacks) as important building blocks. They expect a boost when rookie tackle Nick Fairley, drafted 13th overall in April out of Auburn, returns from foot surgery to start the regular season.
"For me, it's about outdoing last year and, first and foremost, helping my teammates win," Suh said. "We want to be a feared front four and, really, a feared front eight."
(c) Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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