Haloti Ngata caused something of a kerfuffle in Ravenstown with his recent statement that he has "never been part of a defense like this," meaning the Detroit Lions' unit, for which he now toils after being traded by the Ravens in March.
It sounded like a slap at the Ray Lewis-led, high-quality defenses Ngata mostly played on during his nine years in Baltimore, a period in which the Ravens made seven playoff appearances, went to three AFC title games and won a Super Bowl, with the defense always playing a vital role.
But I don't think Ngata was trying to denigrate his former teammates and coaches. I think his comment has been misinterpreted.
He wasn't talking about the quality of the Lions' defense compared to Baltimore's; he was talking about the style of defense the Lions are playing under Teryl Austin, their current defensive coordinator and formerly the Ravens' secondary coach.
The Lions went with a highly aggressive scheme, especially up front, in 2014, and finished second in the NFL in total defense. No, the Ravens hardly lack for aggressiveness themselves under Dean Pees, their defensive coordinator since 2012, and they finished No. 8 in total defense in 2014, but Ngata obviously feels the Lions are ratcheting up the heat even more under Austin.
"I love it," Ngata told the Detroit Free Press in late May, after an Organized Team Activity practice. "Just the defense that (Austin is) running here, it's awesome. It's a change for me. A lot of the attack, penetrate, aggressive defense, it's awesome. I still got to get used to it, but so far I'm loving it."
With that context in mind, his recent comments, the ones that caused a fuss, don't sound so inflammatory.
"I've been down in Baltimore a long time, and changing to this type of defense, it's just exciting," he said. "I'm excited to do it and I'm excited to be here. Just can't wait to put the pads on to see how it really feels."
If Ngata, 31, deserves to be criticized for anything, it's for making comparisons at all. Yes, the Lions played terrific defense last season and should be tough again in 2015 even without All-Pro tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed with the Miami Dolphins. But the Ravens have a much longer track record of success on that side of the ball, and of course, an ultra-aggressive style isn't the only path to playing winning defense. Pees and his staff know a thing or two about how to bring home a win, as Ngata surely knows.
Ngata also should have known that when he complimented his new defensive front in Detroit for having "so many athletes" and "so many playmakers," it would inevitably be construed as something of a knock on former Baltimore teammates such as Kelly Gregg, Trevor Pryce, Terrell Suggs and others. There are some pretty decent athletes and playmakers in that group, too.
But hey, I think Ngata was just trying to pump up his Detroit teammates and sound enthusiastic about his new football home, which is typical for any player after a trade, especially any player receiving paychecks as large as Ngata's.
I'm pretty sure that, given a choice, he would be gearing up for another season with the Ravens, playing alongside Suggs and filming chicken commercials. He was part of the football furniture here.
I'm also pretty sure the Ravens wish they still had him. His departure, dictated by salary issues, stunned the organization and rattled the locker room, as Suggs noted when he spoke to reporters at the Ravens' mandatory minicamp last month. "I'm trying to cope with it right now," Suggs said of Ngata's absence.
But in the era in which the salary cap trumps all and forces teams into making tough decisions, Ngata ended up in Detroit, where, yes, they're playing good defense these days – the kind of good defense the Ravens have played for a long time.
It would be interesting to revisit this issue in January and see whether Ngata's old defense or new defense is standing taller.