When the Ravens opened training camp in July, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs met with the media for the first time since a torn Achilles limited him to just one game last season.
In the 11 months since that injury – the second time in four years that he had torn an Achilles – questioned swirled about whether the Ravens' all-time sack leader would ever play again. And if he did return, would he be anywhere close to the dominant player he was before the latest injury?
"It's a fair question," Suggs admitted last summer.
He hesitated to make any bold predictions about his return and consistently maintained a wait-and-see approach. But Suggs also talked a lot about how the injury helped give him gain a renewed appreciation for the game, and how he planned to return to his "Darth Sizzle" alter-ego that he had strayed from in recent years.
He hasn't disappointed.
Now 13 weeks into the season, Suggs looks much very much like the dominant defender who has his name firmly etched into Ravens history. He leads the Ravens with eight sacks, has been staunch against the run and still has a knack for coming up with the big play.
He's the clear leader of the defense and has the younger players striving to simply keep up with him.
To make his season even more impressive, Suggs is also playing through a torn biceps muscle that he suffered in Week 6. An injury that would end the season for plenty of players cost Suggs just one game.
"He's had pretty major injuries and he comes back like he hasn't missed a beat," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
Suggs tore his biceps sacking Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Oct. 16, and he quickly made the decision that he would try to play through it. The Ravens were in the middle of a four-game losing skid – their longest in nine years – and Suggs knew the defense needed him on the field. He had also played through the same injury during the 2012 season on the run to Super Bowl XLVII, so he knew he could do it.
Since suffering torn biceps, Suggs has three sacks, three passes defensed and three forced fumbles, and he's largely made the injury an afterthought.
"Going on injured reserve was never an option," Suggs said this week. "You can't predict a biceps injury, but if you're gonna play, you better play. And I mean that. If you're gonna play, you better play. We have a vision, we have a goal we're trying to reach, and we're not accepting any excuses."
When Suggs opted to play through the injury, the entire team took notice.
If a 14-year veteran was willing to push himself through the pain, then what excuse did anyone else have to watch from the sideline?
"Some of the rookies are like, 'Man, how is he out here?'" defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. "It's not shocking because Sizzle is a team player. He's going to do anything and everything – no matter what kind of adversity he's facing – to give everything he's got to the team."
Despite the injury, Suggs has seemed to have get better as the season has progressed.
When talking about all that Suggs has done this year, Head Coach John Harbaugh pointed specifically to the end of Sunday's game against the Dolphins. The Ravens led by 32 points late in the fourth quarter, but Suggs didn't want to watch the end from the sideline. He stayed in the game to the bitter end and his relentless motor led to a quarterback knockdown on the final defensive snap.
"I think that tells the whole story," Harbaugh said.
Suggs' personality commands a massive presence in Baltimore's locker room – his booming voice echoes throughout the Under Armour Performance Center – but his play has spoken louder than anything else.
Having him on the field to torment quarterbacks and stuff the run is a reminder of how dearly his presence was missed last season, and a big reason the Ravens have the league's top-ranked defense.
"'Sizz' is a once-in-a-generation type player," safety Eric Weddle said. "You just can't replicate what he brings. Not just on the field but his whole belief, his mantra, his aura about himself that he brings to our defense."
Suggs has talked many times this season about how he's the last remaining icon from the great Baltimore defenses of the past. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, and Suggs is the lone cornerstone still in place.
He's been tasked with passing the torch to the new era of players like C.J. Mosley and Jimmy Smith, and he's now at a point of his career where he's embraced that mission.
"The biggest thing that helped him get over that hump of being the last one is that he accepted it," Mosley said. "This year he pretty much told the whole defense, 'I'm the last one, so it's y'alls show now.' The first thing that comes with that new role is accepting who you are now."
Suggs has downplayed his individual success all season. He's answered questions about playing through the biceps injury with, "It's nothing I haven't done before," and he's consistently reminded the media and his teammates about the work they have left to do.
As the Ravens get ready to face the New England Patriots Monday night in their biggest challenge of the season, Suggs has kept his focus on the bigger picture. He's already enjoyed all of the individual accomplishments in his career of making Pro Bowls and winning post-season awards, but he knows now his time in the league is limited, and all of his attention is on getting the Ravens back in the postseason.
"All of that is good and dandy and all," Suggs said, "but let's talk in the first week of January if we have a game that week."