John Niyo: Lions’ Ndamukong Suh goes on defense to protect reputation


John Niyo

Detroit Ndamukong Suh had a lot to say Monday.

But nothing said it better than this.

“If I’m not gonna protect myself,” the Lions all-Pro defensive tackle mused, “then nobody else is going to.”

That, as much as any statement — alleged or otherwise, heard or unspoken — might explain what he’s thinking these days, both on and off the field.

Because he’s being asked to wage a war on both fronts, no matter how understandably reluctant he is to admit it. When he’s not fighting opponents double teams in the trenches — and the cheap shots that inevitably come with them — he finds himself fighting, or at least being asked to fight, a perception that he’s a dirty player, fueled by postgame comments from the Falcons after a 23-16 loss at Ford Field.

Suh and teammate Cliff Avril were accused by Falcons players of taunting and trash-talking on the field when Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went down what initially looked to be a serious leg injury in the game. (Ryan did return to the game the next series.)

Receiver Roddy White told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he “lost a whole lot of respect for” both players for “the (expletive) they were doing when Matt got hurt.”

The newspaper quoted White as saying Avril “was kicking (Ryan’s) feet saying, ‘Get him off the field.'”

Falcons center Todd McClure said Suh was saying, “‘Get the cart’ and several other things that I can’t repeat.”

Avril disputed those comments via Twitter on Sunday night, while Suh, who normally doesn’t address the media until Wednesday each week, angrily addressed them Monday.

“They’re gonna say what they want to say,” Suh said, adding “it’s he-said, she-said” as he quickly dismissed the suggestion — one that apparently was lost in translation by the initial report — that Avril actually kicked Ryan while he was down.

The video clearly shows he didn’t. (Avril and Suh are barely in the picture before and after Ryan goes down in a heap.)

And besides, as Suh points out, “I know for a fact, if Cliff — or anybody, for that matter — kicked an opposing quarterback, I’m sure there would’ve been a riot.”

“If that would’ve happened to Matt Stafford and he was on the ground and somebody kicked him,” Suh said, “I guarantee you all hell would’ve broke loose.”

Instead, we’re left with this, whatever the heck it is.

He said, he said

The Lions lost. The Falcons won. Atlanta players accused Detroit of ugly behavior, prompting the Lions to fire back with similar accusations. And we in the media become a ping-pong ball of sorts.

He said, she said? It’s more like, “Did you hear what they said about what you said?” (While conveniently ignoring the fact the hidden soundtrack of an NFL game would make Howard Stern cringe.)

“There was no comments — at all,” Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “I was there when he went down. … We waved for the trainers to come get Matt. We never once made a threat like that to him at all.

“It’s absurd that they would even mention that.”

White, though, wasn’t backing down Monday as he clarified his remarks in an interview with the NFL Network.

“We didn’t say (Avril) kicked Matt,” White said. “We said one of the guys — I don’t know if it was 92 (Avril) or 93 (Kyle Vanden Bosch), one of the defensive ends — came over and he was making kicking gestures, like, ‘Get him out of here.’ And I know Suh said what he said. He was like, ‘Go get the cart for him. Get him out of here.’ He knows he said that.”

Suh was asked about what he said or didn’t say Monday, and he responded, “I’m not even near their quarterback, so how am I going to trash-talk somebody that has a medical staff that’s all around him?”

But he didn’t stop there, as Suh pointed out it wasn’t the Lions who made contact with Ryan on the play. It was his own lineman, Will Svitek, who stepped on Ryan’s ankle while trying to block the Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson.

“If you look at it, to me, it’s karma,” Suh said, noting the Falcons own well-cultivated reputation for dirty play on the offensive line. “For all the bad stuff they’ve done in the past, their offensive lineman hurt their own quarterback. So I’ll leave it at that.”

White responded, “We’re not gonna go back and forth about ‘he-said, she-said,'” before doing just that, adding, “And then he’s gonna say it’s karma for what we’ve done in the past? And then their quarterback (Matthew Stafford) gets hurt on the last play of the game.”

Reputation is sticking

Back to you, Mr. Suh, who was asked if he was hurt personally by the accusations.

“Do I need Rodney White’s respect?” Suh said, before answering himself. “No. I’ll leave it at that.”

At that point, he walked away, flanked by a Lions spokesman.

Now, I have no idea whether Suh purposely mispronounced White’s name or not as a parting gesture — I don’t think he did — or whether Suh knows where the Pistons former first-round pick is now. (Last I heard, he was hooping it up in South Korea.)

But as Suh himself rather bluntly reminded us Monday, we really don’t know him at all.

“Nobody’s gonna be able to really understand who I am, except for very few,” Suh said.

He went on to explain that’s because some people “won’t take the time” to, as he put it, “see the type of person I am.” Then, in the next breath, he admitted that’s because “they can’t get close enough to me. I won’t let people get close to me.”

So Suh me, but I don’t know how we’re going to solve that riddle if that’s the way he’s going to play this game.

Still, what I do know about Suh is that he’s smart, he’s focused, he’s determined and he’s potentially as dominant a player as we’ve ever seen at his position. And while it’d be foolish to think this talk will change his game — “Have you seen me stop playing? Not at all. It’s not gonna affect me,” he said — it’d be a shame if that talent got overshadowed by talk of dirty play, much as it has been with Pittsburgh’s James Harrison.

Talk is cheap. But reputations are invaluable.

john.niyo@detnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

Calvin Johnson is NFL’s prime catch


The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Third of 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position.

When Lions coach Jim Schwartz was the defensive coordinator with the Titans in 2008, he had a short week to prepare for a Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Lions.

The Lions hadn’t won a game all season but that didn’t stop Schwartz from staying up late worrying about a solid defensive game plan. He told reporters shortly after taking the Lions head coaching position that it was Lions receiver Calvin Johnson that he was so worried about.

At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, and boasting 4.3 speed, Johnson is one of the toughest matchups for defensive backs in all of football. As Schwartz can attest, he gives defensive coordinators headaches trying to figure a way to slow him down.

“He’s a young player, but he also has some experience now,” Schwartz said. “He’s learned how to persevere through a lot of things in the NFL, he’s learned how to persevere through double teams; he’s learned how to be successful even when he’s being double teamed. He’s taken a really big jump this year as an inside receiver. Inside breaking routes from the slot, I mean those are run after the catch, those things have been really big for him this year. It’s been difficult for him, but his production wouldn’t reflect how difficult it’s been on him.”

Before the Lions added a few weapons to pair with Johnson, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be double and even triple teamed.

Johnson broke through in 2010, earning his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods after compiling 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The fact that Johnson was productive without franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford for 12 games is even more impressive. Johnson played with three different quarterbacks 2010, having to adjust week-to-week with three very different throwing styles.

“I don’t know how many wide receivers are making the Pro Bowl with three different quarterbacks,” Schwartz said.

The scary thing about Johnson is that he feels he hasn’t even reached his potential yet.

“I’m close, but I haven’t gotten there exactly where I want to be,” he said late last season.

Johnson is one of a number of truly gifted receivers in the NFL today.

Right now, there’s probably the biggest collection of Hall-of-Fame caliber receivers playing in the NFL than there’s even been.

Top 10 receivers

1. Calvin Johnson, Lions: He’s the hardest receiver to match up against since Randy Moss was in his prime. Simply put, he’s a freak. There’s a reason they call him “Megatron.” Take a poll of defensive backs around the league and ask them who the hardest receiver in the NFL to cover is and Johnson’s name will likely come up more than anyone else.

2. Andre Johnson, Texans: If anything, he’s consistent. Johnson has averaged nearly 100 yards per game over his last 54 games. He managed 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games in 2010 and that was with the league’s leading rusher (Adrian Foster) as a teammate.

3. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: No one probably did more with less than Fitzgerald. The quarterback play was abysmal for the Cardinals all season, yet he managed 90 catches for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns. It’s his fourth-straight season with at least 1,000 receiving yards and over that stretch he missed just one game.

4. Roddy White, Falcons: White led the league with 115 receptions, a single-season Falcons record, marking the fourth-straight season he’s recorded at least 1,100 receiving yards. White led the NFL with 73 of his catches resulting in a first down.

5. Reggie Wayne, Colts: With an AFC-best 111 receptions, Wayne became the seventh player in NFL history with three or more 100-catch seasons.Last season was his seventh-straight 1,000 yard season. Even more impressive is the fact that he hasn’t missed a game since 2002, a streak of 129-straight regular season starts.

6. Greg Jennings, Packers: Jennings was clutch for the Packers all season, especially when tight end Jermichael Finley was lost to a knee injury. Jennings had 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns and posted 100-yard-plus games in playoff wins against the Falcons and Bears on way to Super Bowl title.

7. Mike Wallace, Steelers: The fastest receiver in the NFL stormed onto the scene in 2010 with 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns. There was some debate as to whether he could flourish as a team’s No. 1 option, but those questions have been put to bed for good. Wallace averaged 21.0 yards per catch, and by the end of the season, he demanded safety help over the top.

8. DeSean Jackson, Eagles: Jackson is lightning in a bottle, whether it’s running the go route for quarterback Michael Vick or returning punts. One of the fastest players in the game, Jackson averaged 22.5 yards per-catch last season, the most of any receiver with more than 10 catches.

9. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: Bowe paced the NFL with 15 touchdown catches in 2010, the most in a season in Chiefs history. There have been questions about his work ethic, but there’s no question that when he’s healthy, and motivated, he’s a fantasy football player’s dream.

10. Hakeem Nicks, Giants: Nicks missed three games in 2010 but still had 79 catches for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season as the team’s No. 1 option. In only his second season in the league, Nicks has become the go-to guy for Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

Schedule

Wednesday: Quarterbacks

Thursday : Running backs

Friday : Receivers

Saturday : Tight ends

Monday : Offensive tackles

Tuesday : Guards

Wednesday, June 29: Centers

Thursday, June 30 : Safeties

Friday, July 1 : Cornerbacks

Saturday, July 2 : Outside linebackers

Monday, July 4 : Inside linebackers

Tuesday, July 5 : Defensive ends

Wednesday, July 6 : Defensive tackles

tim.twentyman@detnews.com

Aaron Rodgers leads Packers in bombardment of Falcons


Packers 48, Falcons 21

Paul Newberry / Associated Press

Atlanta — As Aaron Rodgers trotted off the field, savoring another playoff win, he was serenaded with chants of “Go, Pack, Go!”

This wasn’t Lambeau Field, but it sure sounded like it.

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Looking very much at home, Rodgers threw three touchdown passes, ran for another score and led the Green Bay Packers to their second straight postseason road victory with a stunning 48-21 rout of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night.

“This just feels so good right now,” said Rodgers, who threw for 366 yards and led Green Bay to the highest-scoring playoff game in its storied history.

The Packers (12-6) will have to win one more on the road to complete their improbable run from sixth seed to the Super Bowl, but nothing looks out of the question the way Rodgers is playing. He’ll lead Green Bay into the NFC championship game at Chicago or Seattle next weekend.

“This probably was my best performance — the stage we were on, the importance of this game,” Rodgers said. “It was a good night.”

He completed 31 of 36 passes and put up more yards than Brett Favre — the guy he replaced in Green Bay — ever threw for in a playoff game. After knocking off Michael Vick and the Eagles in Philadelphia, then dominating Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta, Rodgers is creating his own legacy in Titletown USA.

Brett who?

Green Bay scored 35 consecutive points, including Tramon Williams’ 70-yard interception return on the final play of the first half that left the Falcons (13-4) and a crowd of more than 69,000 in a state of shock as the teams headed to the locker room.

The Packers could’ve left punter Tim Masthay at home. He was never needed.

“I felt like I was in the zone,” Rodgers said.

Ryan, who beat out Rodgers for a spot in the Pro Bowl, had a miserable night. He also was picked off in the end zone, costing Atlanta another scoring chance early on that might’ve changed the complexion of the game, and lost a fumble attempting a simple sneak. In two career playoff games, Matty Ice is 0-2 with six turnovers and a safety.

“Anytime you’re in the playoffs, you have an opportunity to win it all,” Ryan said. “When that doesn’t happen, it’s frustrating.”

The Falcons went into the playoffs as the NFC’s top-seeded team for only the second time in franchise history. The result was the same as it was during the 1980 season: one and done.

In the locker room afterward, coach Mike Smith tried to make sense of it for his players.

“We will learn from it. That’s the important thing,” he said. “I also told ’em, as bad as they feel right now, remember the whole body of work we put out there this year. We can’t forget that either.”

This game was pretty much over when Rodgers guided the Packers on an 80-yard drive to open the second half, running the last 7 yards for the TD that made it 35-14.

When Rodgers drove the Packers on yet another scoring drive, capped off with a 7-yard pass to John Kuhn late in the third quarter, thousands of red-clad fans headed for the exits, not even bothering to hang around for the final period of a magical season than turned into a green nightmare in the playoffs.

The Falcons simply couldn’t stop Rodgers, who carved up the Atlanta defense on four drives of at least 80 yards.

Time after time, Rodgers ducked a shoulder or pulled off a nifty spin move to get away from a rusher, leaving him grasping at air. Inevitably, he found the open man in what became an increasingly tortured night for the Falcons.

“I had eyes in the back of my head,” Rodgers quipped.

Atlanta’s only defensive stop came on Green Bay’s opening possession, when Stephen Nicholas chased down Greg Jennings from behind and forced a fumble that was recovered by Brett Grimes.

The Falcons quickly drove for the opening score, a 12-yard run by Michael Turner. Unfortunately for the home team, it had to give the ball back to Rodgers. And, as everyone soon discovered, there was no stopping No. 12. A 13-play, 81-yard drive evened the score, Rodgers finishing it off with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson.

The Falcons’ last gasp, as it turned out, was Eric Weems’ 102-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, the longest scoring play in NFL playoff history.

Rodgers went right back to work, even after the Packers bobbled the next kickoff out of bounds at the 8-yard line. With nearly the entire field in front of him, he guided the Packers 92 yards in 10 plays for Kuhn’s 1-yard plunge that made it 14-all.

Ryan was the first to crack in this quarterback duel. He had the Falcons in scoring position again, but Michael Jenkins slipped on a pass in the end zone, allowing Williams to make an easy interception.

Back to Rodgers, who needed only seven plays to torch the Falcons on an 80-yard drive. The touchdown was a perfectly thrown pass to James Jones along the side of the end zone, allowing the receiver to leap over shorter cornerback Brent Grimes for a 20-yard score with 48 seconds left in the first half.

The Packers had their first lead, 21-14, but it was still a game.

Not for long.

Atlanta hustled into position to try a field goal before halftime, thanks to a pair of pass interference penalties. But Ryan was sacked by Clay Matthews with 10 seconds to go, forcing the Falcons to call their final timeout.

Instead of sending out Matt Bryant to attempt a 53-yard kick, coach Mike Smith wanted to get it a little closer. Bad move. The Packers knew Ryan had to throw it near the sideline to stop the clock, and Williams read the play perfectly.

The cornerback, who sealed the win over the Eagles by intercepting Vick in the end zone, stepped in front of a quick out pass intended for Roddy White and was gone on a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown on the final play of the half.

“I recognized the formation,” Williams said. “I knew they were trying to get into position for a field goal.”

The second half was one long victory lap for the Packers, whose hefty contingent of fans was able to move down right near the edge of the emptying Georgia Dome and cheer on their team.

For the Falcons, nothing but misery.

A long pass completion was overturned with a replay. Ryan fumbled a snap while attempting a sneak on third-and-short. Jenkins lost the ball after a catch, Atlanta’s fourth turnover of the night. Tony Gonzalez hobbled off with a sprained ankle.