Suggs back where his football career started

PHOENIX - The Baltimore Ravens continually marvel over Terrell Suggs' rare acceleration and instincts as a pass rusher. In scant seconds, Suggs can end an ambitious strategy plotted for months. Suggs is the Ravens' prize rookie outside linebacker who acts as a frequent exclamation point in shutting down offenses' drives.

He's also the personable first-round draft pick with a penchant for dancing in the weight room along with performing his top Al Pacino impersonations. "The Godfather" and "Scarface" are his favorite renditions. "From his first press conference, I was amazed at the way he could work the room, how he had everyone laughing," said Earnest Byner, the Ravens' director of player development. "He's always dancing. He's a funny guy with a lot of personality. You kind of look at him the way you look at a 5-year-old kid: 'Gosh you got a lot of energy.'"

The designated sack specialist celebrated his 21st birthday on Saturday in his return to the Valley of the Sun with a toast of Gatorade. The Chandler, Ariz., native said he won't imbibe in a champagne splash until after football season is over. The backdrop for Suggs' birthday weekend comes in the familiar environment of Arizona, where precious little except a cactus can thrive. 

Baltimore outside linebackers coach Phil Zacharias likens Suggs to a blooming flower plucked from the desert. The former Arizona State star ranks third in the NFL with four sacks along with one interception. This is where Suggs established himself as a fearsome hunter of quarterbacks by setting an NCAA single-season mark with 24 sacks last fall for the Sun Devils.  The latest target for the 6-foot-3, 260-pound rookie is former Ravens starting quarterback Jeff Blake.

Today at Sun Devil Stadium, the Ravens (2-2) play Suggs' hometown Arizona Cardinals (1-4), a downtrodden franchise that struggles to win on the football field and at the box office. 
This is the same losing outfit that decided to pass on Suggs and trade their sixth overall pick this spring to acquire two first-round selections that became defensive end Calvin Pace and wide receiver Bryant Johnson. "I don't hold a personal grudge even though I was sure I was going to play for the Cardinals," Suggs said. "They needed a pass rusher. Who's better than your hometown pass rusher? The dice didn't roll that way.  "This worked out the best for me. I needed to be in Baltimore as a football player and as a man. I have absolutely no regrets."

The Cardinals reportedly had concerns about Suggs' maturity following a fight in a pick-up basketball game before the draft. That minor incident dovetailed with Suggs turning in some disappointing 40-yard dash times ranging between 4.84 and 4.92 seconds. Arizona downgraded Suggs on their draft board. Then, Baltimore was unable to complete a trade for the Minnesota Vikings' No. 7 pick to acquire quarterback Byron Leftwich. That allowed the Ravens to draft Suggs with the 10th overall pick before engineering a trade to draft starting quarterback Kyle Boller.

Baltimore is quick to point that Suggs has uncanny speed over the short distances that a pass rusher ordinarily has to traverse to hit the quarterback. "I bet his 10-yard dash is really fast," Zacharias said. "From my vantage point, one of his big assets is how well he gets off the ball. He keeps his pad level down, which is always a big issue for any football player. He's quick and he's strong and he's learning fast."

The unorthodox prodigy's four sacks through four contests ties the best pass-rushing start to a career in league history. "We knew what he could do," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "He has definitely shown the ability to rush the passer. He's also doing a better job in practice dropping into pass coverage. We feel like he's going to be that force that we look for at the outside linebacker position."

Meanwhile, the Cardinals' defensive line has zero sacks and Suggs has one more than the entire Arizona defense. Arizona coach Dave McGinnis naturally prefers to not focus on the Cardinals' decision to forego Suggs. "That decision has been made and done," McGinnis said. "I think Terrell has done very well there and he is being used very judiciously."

Suggs lives with three cousins near the Ravens' training complex to ease his move to the East Coast, which marks his first extended stay away from his immediate family. "I have my cousins here, my boys, and that helps me a lot," Suggs said. "I have people around me who I can trust. Plus, my mom calls me a lot to check on me. I'm blessed."

Still, the Ravens keep tabs on Suggs with frequent telephone calls. Byner counsels Suggs about being careful in night clubs and with his newfound wealth. "Terrell came in and he's 20 and he acts 20 whereas Ed Reed was a little bit older guy who had an even older mentality," Byner said. "We have some basic tenets or guidelines to try to structure stuff for him.  "In college, you're cocooned to a certain degree, but this is real life. This is the NFL. Terrell is a great kid who's still maturing."

Byner showed Suggs a video about how to avoid trouble. He even advised Suggs to apologize quickly if he accidentally bumps into someone at a restaurant or bar to avoid any potential confrontation. Plus, Suggs is dealing with the complications that can accompany signing a five-year contract worth roughly $9 million. "We make him aware of checking aggression," Byner said. "We talk to him about how you carry yourself in public. People see a guy coming up in a nice car and they want a piece of him. We try to make him aware that you are a target. "We don't want him to not trust people. We just don't want him to be naïve."

Another part of Suggs' adjustment to professional football has been a position change.  He was a defensive end in college, winning the Lombardi and Bronko Nagurski Awards last season as he set the Sun Devils' records for sacks with 44 and tackles for losses with 65.5. As he learns the nuances of pass coverage, Baltimore is taking advantage of what he's comfortable with: chasing quarterbacks. He spends a lot of time with defensive line coach Rex Ryan working on countermoves. "We don't want him to be the jack of all trades," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "We want to utilize the skills he has."

Eventually, the goal is for Suggs to become an every-down linebacker.  This is the same move that Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware, the Ravens' all-time leading pass rusher, underwent coming out of Florida State seven years ago. "It's one of the toughest things I ever did," Boulware said. "I was just like Terrell in college. All I did was rush. I never dropped. "The transition from college to the NFL is tough enough, but to make the transition from college to the NFL to another position, that's a double dose."

Beyond the occasional bout of frustration in his desire to be a defensive regular, Suggs is simply having a good time being in the NFL. He emphasized there's absolutely no bitterness toward the Cardinals. I don't really have any personal grudge against the Cardinals," Suggs said. "Every football player just wants to play well. That's all I want to do Sunday. Play good, help my team win and enjoy my 21st birthday."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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