Analysis

Ndamukong Suh, Rams must adapt to realize his L.A. potential

When I heard last week that Ndamukong Suh was signing with the Los Angeles Rams, I got excited, pumped or whatever other synonym you could come up with for stoked.

Not because I'm a Rams fan or a Suh fan, but because the thought of Suh teaming up with fellow superhuman Aaron Donald is like super-food for a curious football mind.

I mean, what the hell will that look like?!?!? We're talking about two terrifying bulls who have the power, quickness and technique to wreck opposing offensive lines individually, and now they're being paired together? And oh, by the way, Michael Brockers is a damn good player along that defensive line, as well.

But then as my mind got going, I started to ask myself things like, Wait, has Suh ever played in a 3-4 defense? And how exactly is Wade Phillips going to play three tackles at the same time?

Legit questions exist, making it far from the slam-dunk, home-run, no-brainer acquisition it felt like at the time of the signing.

3-4 or nah?

Let's at least consider that there could be a pretty large learning curve for Suh.

Per Next Gen Stats, Suh played in a base 4-3 for all three of his seasons with the Miami Dolphins (2015-17), despite having had four different coordinators in that span. And how rarely did Suh play in a scheme that featured three down linemen? Well, NGS tell us the Dolphins ran a three-DL lineup on just 16 snaps in 2017 and just ONCE in all of 2016.

Going back further, Suh started his career by playing four seasons under Jim Schwartz (with Gunther Cunningham as his DC) from 2010 to '13, while also playing a single season (2014) under Jim Caldwell, who had Teryl Austin running the defense. While I don't particularly feel like charting every single one of the Lions' defensive snaps from that time period, we know Schwartz and Cunningham have long used the 4-3 as their base alignment, and the same goes for Austin. I think it can be safely assumed Suh played very few snaps in defensive lineups that featured three down linemen.

Meanwhile, Next Gen Stats reveals the Rams very rarely went heavy in the trenches, playing with four down linemen on just 2.75 plays per game, or about four percent of their total defensive plays last year (there were zero snaps with more than four down defensive linemen). In fact according to NGS, the Rams favored having just two down linemen (with four linebackers and five defensive backs) as one of their go-to lineups, running that grouping on 22.31 plays per game, making it their second-most-used package. Their base 3-4-4 package was used on 33.44 plays per game. So don't expect the Rams to change much, meaning Suh will have to learn a totally new base package for the first time as a pro.

Speaking of learning curves, it's worth noting this is move marks yet another coordinator change for Suh.

Adapt or die

Akin to Brad Pitt's character in "Moneyball," Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips believes in adapting. In fact, he's made it crystal clear that baseline defenses need to be flexible to match the talent as opposed to finding talent to fit a baseline defense.

"You adapt the scheme to what the players can do," Phillips said while orchestrating the defense for the 2015 Broncos, one of the most suffocating units of all time.

He reiterated that point again when he took on his current gig with the Rams in 2017. The job began with switching the team from a 4-3 to a 3-4, a transition that naturally led to questions as to whether a smallish tackle like Donald (285 pounds) could still thrive in a defense that traditionally favors tackles that weigh well north of 300 pounds.

"If he can't fit in, you're doing the wrong thing," Phillips said of Donald in February of 2017.

So if there is anyone out there who can figure out how to play three tackles at one time in a 3-4 scheme, Son of Bum is your guy.

That being said .... who kicks outside? For simplicity's sake, let's take Brockers out of the equation and assume he will play everywhere, as he was apt to do last year. Both Suh and Donald have fairly limited experience lining up as an edge defender, per Next Gen Stats, with Donald taking just 4.2 percent of his snaps on the edge and Suh playing outside on just 6.2 percent of his snaps in 2017. (Note: NGS defines "the edge" as when a player lines up in a 5, 6, 7 or 9 technique.)

And as you can see on the heat map, if Suh is going play as an edge defender more frequently, he'll likely do it by squaring off against opposing right guards and tackles. If I had to guess, I think we see Donald lined up as the nose and Suh teeing off on the right side of opposing lines while Brockers is doing his thing to the left side.

But if the Rams get Suh and Donald on the same page? Good night. Because much like yin and yang or Zellweger and Cruise, Suh could complete Donald, and vice versa. In 2017, each was strong where the other was weak, weak where the other was strong. Suh was a catch-all inside, blanketing the run; Donald was a terror on opposing quarterbacks.

Learn from history or be doomed to repeat it

I don't think it's a stretch to say that, when he was released by Miami last month, Suh became the most-coveted DT free agent since Albert Haynesworth, a memory that will get Washington and Rams fans alike super-triggered. Before you get crazy, I'm not saying this signing is the same as Haynesworth to Washington. But one of the lessons we learned was, scheme fit matters, regardless of talent, regardless of position. When Haynesworth went from the Titans to the Redskins, he went from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and he very publicly let it be known he hated it.

Again, it'd be foolish not to consider scheme fit, even for a player of the colossal size and talent of Suh. Remember, when Haynesworth signed his mega-contract for seven years and $100 million in 2009, he was coming off his second Pro Bowl and was widely considered one of the most disruptive defensive linemen on the planet.

But you know what else we learned from the Haynesworth saga (which ended in Washington in July of 2011 when he was traded to the Patriots after totaling 6.5 sacks in 20 games)? That motivation was as big a factor as the change in base packages. And on that front, Suh should be highly motivated, as he is working on a one-year deal while playing for a team that will be on a short list of those expected to contend for the Lombardi.

So while most are rightfully excited about the move (for goodness' sake, I compared Suh and Donald to Kane and Undertaker, so clearly, I'm on board), make no mistake: It will take work and, yes, adaptation from all involved to tap into all that enormous potential.

James D. Koh is an anchor and host for NFL Network. He is also the host of the NFL Fantasy Live Podcast and a guest columnist for the NFL.com editorial staff. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDKoh to tell him how wrong he is.

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