Bills fans remember the dominant force that Ted Washington was on Buffalo's defensive fronts of the late 90's. Flanked by Hall of Famer Bruce Smith and Wall of Famer Phil Hansen, Washington routinely gobbled up two blockers and let linebackers behind him run free to make tackles. The result was the number one defense in football in 1999. Now more than a decade and a half later, what NFL clubs look for at defensive tackle has changed dramatically.
Buffalo and Miami meet on Sunday and the two clubs have invested heavily in a premier playmaking defensive tackles. The Dolphins handed free agent Ndamukong Suh a seven-year contract in excess of $100 million. The Bills followed suit with a multi-year contract extension for Marcell Dareus earlier this month with reportedly the most guaranteed money for a non-quarterback in league history. The question is what has prompted teams to make record breaking commitments to players who do a lot of the dirty work in what is more and more becoming a passing league?
In a word it's the versatility of players like Dareus and Suh that commands top dollar.
"It is clear that's how people are valuing these defense tackles," said Bills head coach Rex Ryan. "But it is really rare to get somebody like a Suh, like a Marcell Dareus, two guys that play the run extremely well and they get after the quarterback. So I think those guys are hard to find. They are rare guys, as my dad would always say it is hard to find an unusual guy like this. And he had Alan Page, Eric Swanson, Dan Hampton through the years. But I am certainly happy we have Marcell and I am sure Miami is happy they have Suh."
Dareus and Suh are part of a generation of interior defensive linemen that possess uncommon athleticism and power to rush the passer. Since Suh came into the league in 2010, he and Dareus are two of just five defensive tackles to post double-digit sack seasons. Suh did it with 10 sacks as a rookie in 2010, while Dareus did it last season to lead all NFL defensive tackles with 10. Cincinnati's Geno Atkins (2012), Tennessee's Jurrell Casey (2013) and Buffalo's Kyle Williams (2013) are the only others.
Bills FB Jerome Felton, a former teammate and adversary of Suh in the NFC North the last few years knows all too well the challenge that an immovable player like Suh presents for an offense's run game.
"He's a great player. I played with him in Detroit, I played against him in Minnesota. He's somebody you always have to account for on every single play, no matter if he's making a play or disrupting things for other people," Felton said. "A great player. We're going to have to pack our lunch when it comes to him-for sure."
Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, who squared off against Dareus in college before meeting him twice a year in the AFC East, puts the Bills Pro Bowl defensive lineman at the top of his rankings list.
"Marcell Dareus is the best nose guard in the NFL," Pouncey said. "He's a really good football player. He understands football really well. Just look at the stats, you don't have 10 sacks at nose guard in this league unless you're a really good player and that he is."
The two defensive tackles believe they've helped to change the conversation about what a defensive tackle can be in this day and age of the NFL. No longer do they stand at the top of a defensive formation and just stand their ground taking on double teams down in and down out. But the fact that they still possess the size and strength to do that as well makes them unique.
"It's the hardest position on the field to make plays and it's getting to a point where guys can make plays there," Dareus said. "I feel like it's kind of turning a little bit. Guys are manning up and look(ing) at themselves in the mirror and say(ing), 'I'm not going to be moved today.' It's a different type of guy who can look himself in the mirror and say, 'I'm not going to get moved by two of you.' It's just a different look."
As much film as both Dareus and Suh watch of opposing offenses each week, it's clear both have taken the time to look at one another's games.
"From the film that I've seen of him, he's an exceptional player," said Suh of Dareus. "I'm very happy for him that he got paid because he definitely deserved it. He's a guy that definitely has a great future ahead of him, he's a very young guy, I think he's like 25, so he's got a lot of football ahead of him and I'm excited to see him play. Obviously don't want him to have a good game against us, but every other game outside of when we play them here or we go up there, I hope he has all the best games he can."
"I'm a little finesse, I'm a little power. Suh he's the same, he's a little finesse and power," said Dareus. "Suh is a good player."
While there's mutual respect between the two big men there surprisingly isn't much of a relationship between the them.
"I've met him at the Pro Bowl, seen him at the Pro Bowl a couple of times," Dareus said. "Brief conversations, not really much to say to each other. Good player. I've got nothing against him, but that's pretty much it."
One thing that Dareus does appreciate is how Suh's big free agent contract set the market for premier defensive tackles. When Dareus was still in the midst of contract negotiations on an extension with the Bills he did say he would thank Suh personally. So will that conversation happen pre-game Sunday?
"If I do it's a conversation between me and Suh," said Dareus chuckling.