NEW ORLEANS — The Baltimore Ravens’ run to Super Bowl XLVII has been helped by a star linebacker’s faster-than-normal return from injury.
Although inside linebacker’s Ray Lewis’ return from a torn triceps for the start of the playoffs and his impending retirement have grabbed the headlines, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ return from an Achilles injury and his impact on the defense has been significant as well.
Suggs, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season, suffered a partially torn Achilles during a conditioning drill that required surgery in May. Though the comeback from such an injury normally takes nearly a full year, Suggs pledged to be back in four to six months, and he played in a game 5½ months later.
“Terrell’s passion and fire to come back was amazing,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said Wednesday. “I think it made Ray Lewis want to come back from his tricep injury. I think it trickled down throughout the whole team. I don’t know if people understand how significant Terrell is to our team, and him coming back definitely helped our defense.”
Suggs, who later missed two more regular-season games with a torn biceps, had just 22 tackles and two sacks in eight regular-season games. But in three playoff games, he has made 19 tackles, and he had two sacks and forced a fumble in Baltimore’s 38-35 double-overtime victory at Denver in the AFC divisional round.
“I don’t know if I’m even close to normal right now,” Suggs said. “It’s the tasks. It’s the goal. All of that is bigger than how you feel.
“I guarantee you, come (Sunday), when the clock reads 0:00 in the fourth quarter, if the score reads how I expect it to read and how I want it to read, I promise you I won’t feel any pain.”
Suggs’ teammates said his presence, even at less than 100 percent, makes a big difference.
“Just to have somebody so formidable on the outside that the other team is going to account for and that you know is going to have to double-team leaves one less guy to block the linebackers,” linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. “That lets us roam free. We’re a team that has a lot of playmakers but, when you have a Defensive Player of the Year back on your defense starting, it’s irreplaceable.”
When Suggs finished his career at Arizona State a year early in 2003, he was projected to be a high first-round draft choice, and the Arizona Cardinals were in position to select him with the sixth pick.
Suggs, who said his preference was to stay at home, taped a commercial with Lewis that would run during the draft. As they visited during the taping, Lewis told Suggs that he might fall to the Ravens, who had the 10th pick, but Suggs doubted it.
“Me, being the naive 20-year-old that I am, I’m like, ‘No way I’m going that far down the line,’ ” Suggs said.
But the Cardinals traded out of the sixth pick — sending the selection to the Saints, who selected Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan. Four picks later, Suggs was a Raven.
Then came a phone call from Lewis.
“He said, ‘I told you, rook. I can’t wait to see you in camp,’ ” Suggs recalled. “The rest is history.”
Ten years later, Suggs, 30, is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and the Ravens’ all-time sacks leader.
“I’m a guy that doesn’t normally get hurt and had two injuries this year that were supposed to sideline me for the rest of the year,” Suggs said. “But I just refused to accept that.
“What drove me to work so hard was the possibility of being here. I knew we had a team that was right there on the brink, was always on the brink, so I just wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t want to watch the season on the sideline, and I definitely wanted to help my teammates reach this point.”