Final act? Terrell Suggs understands he could be playing last games for Ravens

BALTIMORE -- After the Baltimore Ravens notched their third shutout of the season last week, linebacker Terrell Suggs took time to speak about his reverence for suiting up for the team, explaining how it's now part of his DNA.

He knows what it means to play with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. He knows what it takes to sack Ben Roethlisberger twice in a playoff game with one healthy shoulder. And he knows how to maintain intensity and passion for the game in his 15th season, leading the NFL's No. 6 defense in sacks.

What's uncertain for Suggs, the franchise's all-time sacks leader, is how his career in Baltimore will come to a close. Being an all-time great doesn't guarantee a Hollywood ending, which would be fitting for a film buff like Suggs. He's seen Lewis and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden retire as Ravens, but he's watched Reed go elsewhere in free agency and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata get traded.

Between the $4 million the team could save against the cap without him next offseason and the recent addition of young pass-rushers, Suggs might be playing his final games for the Ravens this year. Monday night's game against the Houston Texans could represent his last prime-time appearance at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I would really love to be in one place my whole career. Not many players can say they did that," Suggs told ESPN before his 207th game for the Ravens. "But I also understand this is a business and that might not happen. I’m pretty much making my peace with it now. I’m preparing myself for it just in case. What will be, will be."

Suggs hasn't spoken to general manager Ozzie Newsome about his future, but he has learned over the years that nothing should surprise him in the current NFL landscape.

Veteran pass-rushers have become football's modern-day mercenaries. Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney have bounced around from team to team once they reached their 30s.

At the age of 35, Suggs is doing his best to stick around Baltimore. He leads the team with 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles even though the Ravens drafted three pass-rushers (Matthew Judon, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams) over the past two offseasons.

"I really think he is playing the best football I have seen him play in a number of years," coach John Harbaugh said.

The questions about retirement have been increasing in recent years, especially after a second Achilles injury sidelined him for all but one game in 2015 and he totaled just 35 tackles in 15 games in 2016.

Suggs takes it as a slight when asked whether he's going to walk away from the game soon. He has led the Ravens in sacks in four of the past five seasons in which he played more than eight games. Suggs mentioned this week that he doesn't feel his career has reached cruising altitude yet, and he's still ascending.

In the opener, Suggs sacked Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton twice and almost wrapped him up for a third one. In Week 2, he set the tone by stripping the ball from Browns QB DeShone Kizer on the second series of the game. Last Sunday, he sealed the shutout victory over Green Bay with two drive-ending sacks in the fourth quarter.

Suggs has six sacks in five Ravens wins, and 1.5 sacks in five losses.

"To me, he’s our guy; he’s our leader," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "A lot of times, I think as he goes, we go."

The secret to Suggs' success

Getting as many laughs as sacks during his career, Suggs constantly feeds into his jokester persona, such as the time this year when he wore a mask depicting Bane (a villain from the "Batman" series) for the team photo.

But the class clown is also the shrewdest guy in the room.

Asked what makes Suggs such a special player, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas all pointed to football intelligence.

"I think the one thing he has done so well is how well he plays the game mentally," Lewis said. "I don’t think he gets much credit for that. Not only is he the physically tough, gifted, greatest rusher, but he understands the offense, and he plays things out there on the field, schematically and mentally.”

Thomas, who has gone head-to-head against Suggs 18 times, chalks up Suggs' success to taking some educated chances in the same vein as J.J. Watt. Suggs has been around for so long that he's seen all the formations and knows the weaknesses.

There are plenty of times, Thomas noted, that Suggs' gap is on the outside, but he shoots to the inside because he's betting that he'll get a tackle for loss or a sack. If he's wrong, he's putting teammates in a bad position. If he's right -- and Thomas notes that 99 times out of 100 that Suggs is correct -- it's a big play for the Ravens' defense.

"A lot of times it catches guys off guard," Thomas said. "Because they’re thinking, you can’t do that, you can’t leave your gap. But he’s saying, I’m taking a calculated risk."

In going against the Steelers, Suggs has intercepted Roethlisberger by jumping in the lane of a bubble screen pass instead of going for a sack. Suggs also has a knack for knocking tight ends off their routes (and often to the ground) to disrupt the timing of plays, which allows others to get sacks.

"His physical talents are what they are, and they are well-documented," Tomlin said. "He is athletic. He is powerful. But his awareness, his feel for the game is displayed statistically in the number of passes that he bats and the fact that he is always not just playing for a sack, but that he is a ball-aware guy, he is a sack-fumble guy. I just think his football intelligence is on display in just about every element of his game."

It's been quite an evolution for Suggs. In 2003, he won the defensive rookie of the year award by playing only passing downs and rushing the quarterback. Now, he's regarded as one of the best all-around linebackers of his generation.

Suggs said he didn't really apply himself to studying and learning more of the details about the game until 2010, when Ted Monachino (his defensive line coach in college) came to the Ravens.

"That's one of my biggest regrets -- I didn't realize just how great we would've been [on defense] if my football IQ had been higher earlier on in my career," Suggs said.

The clown prince

If Lewis was the heart of the Ravens' defense and Reed was its soul, Suggs will be remembered as its funny bone.

Suggs is the only one who'll hijack the owner's golf cart and ride across the fields before the start of practice. He'll rib teammates, coaches and his favorite opposing players. After a win over the Steelers in 2011, Suggs said of Roethlisberger, "God can have his soul, but his ass belongs to me."

He'll come out to the practice field singing the "Titanic" theme song, he'll perform a sack dance like the clown Pennywise from the movie "It," and he'll play up an injury by wearing a shoulder harness to a news conference when he really doesn't need one.

The oldest player on the defense is also the youngest at heart.

"It’s like when your parents leave you at home with your uncle," Judon said. "He should be in charge, but he acts more like your brother."

His best antic came at the start of the 2014 season. After the Ravens lost to the Bengals in the opener, running back Ray Rice was then suspended for the entire year for his domestic assault case.

With Baltimore playing Pittsburgh a few days later on Thursday night, Ngata told Suggs: "Sizz [T-Sizzle, his nickname], you're the last out of the tunnel and we need you to do something to get us going."

Suggs replied, "I got this gladiator mask I picked up from Rome."

The fired-up Ravens defeated the Steelers 26-6, and Suggs was later fined $5,512 for wearing the shiny silver mask during player introductions.

What's more gratifying for Suggs: making the entire locker erupt in laughter or getting a sack?

"Getting sacks are like prom night," Suggs said. "It never gets old."

Hall of Fame?

While no one knows whether Suggs will finish his career in Baltimore, another increasing debate is whether he will end up in Canton.

Suggs continues to build a Hall of Fame résumé, cracking into the top 20 in career sacks last Sunday. He currently sits tied at No. 19 with 122, and he is 17.5 sacks away from Jason Taylor, who was inducted this year.

"I think [Suggs] is one of the greats of all time -- not only for the Ravens but at his position," said Thomas, a sure-fire Hall of Fame lineman.

In addition to his NFL defensive rookie of the year award, Suggs was also named the league's defensive player of the year in 2011. He is a six-time Pro Bowl player, a Super Bowl champion and is ranked No. 3 in career postseason sacks with 12.5.

Suggs is the only active player with more than 800 tackles, 10 sacks and 30 forced fumbles.

"Man, he's a Hall of Famer to me," Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said of Suggs last year. "The guy is ridiculous. I have the utmost respect for him. He's one of the best to ever do it."

What can't be disputed is Suggs' impact on this franchise. The foundation of a prideful Ravens defense is Lewis, Reed and Suggs.

"It's a humbling group to be in," Suggs said. "When I was brought in here, there was a certain standard here. That's the standard I'm held up to every single day. When I put my helmet on, that's a privilege every time I do it. That's what the Ravens logo means to me."

ESPN's Pat McManamon contributed to this report.