Detroit — Matthew Stafford completed a couple deep passes to the incomparable Calvin Johnson and blablabla. We’ve seen that highlight reel before, and expect to see it a lot more.
This night was much more about the new sights. And before anyone gets too excited — Ziggy! — and blows one little play out of proportion — ZIGGY! — let’s emphasize it was the exhibition opener. And let’s remember the Lions’ 26-17 victory over the Jets Friday night at Ford Field doesn’t really count.
All the disclaimers out of the way? Good. Now let’s discuss the much-anticipated debuts, and breathlessly note Ziggy Ansah has more touchdowns this year than Stafford and Johnson combined. That’s plain goofy hyperbole, but the point is, the Lions brought in guys to make big plays, and that’s what they flashed.
Barely four minutes into the game, Ansah did what no Lions defender did the entire 2012 season. While wrestling with a blocker, he reached up and snagged a weak throw by Mark Sanchez, then chugged 14 yards with the interception for a touchdown. The Lions didn’t score a single defensive touchdown last season, part of the reason they grabbed the raw, athletic defensive end with the No. 5 overall pick.
That’s also why they signed safety Glover Quin, who nearly collected an interception on the next series, losing the ball when clobbered by tight end Kellen Winslow. Oh, and did I mention right before that, Ansah ditched his blocker and dropped the running back for a 2-yard loss?
With the smothering tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley drawing so much attention, Ansah should get quite a few chances to bag running backs and quarterbacks.
“You know, a lot was made of Ziggy’s inexperience,” Jim Schwartz said. “We said from the beginning that he plays screens well, he plays draws well. We’ve seen that stuff on tape, so it wasn’t a surprise when he made that play.”
Of course, making big plays against the beleaguered Sanchez is what defenders are supposed to do. And yes, Sanchez shredded the Lions defense on one scoring drive, although Quin was out of the game and Louis Delmas didn’t play because of his sore knee. But of all the items on the Lions’ self-improvement checklist, finding someone to make impactful plays — turnovers, long touchdown runs, even towering punts — was at the top.
“That’s one helluva way to come out,” Suh said of Ansah. “And it’s not gonna stop there. He’s got a lot of natural talent and great instincts. … We’ve always wanted to be a defense that’s disruptive and gets the ball back for the offense.”
Hoping to win with Stafford just heaving the ball to Johnson is so 2011. Stafford wasn’t sharp in this one, completing three of eight, and Johnson caught all three for 58 yards. That elicited the normal ooohs, but it was a quick play by newcomer Reggie Bush that drew the aaahs. On his first carry, Bush hurdled a defender, stayed on his feet and kept churning for what can only be described as the greatest 6-yard run by a Lion in several years. (Hyperbole alert).
Bush finished with a mere 5 yards on three carries as the Lions’ first-team offense played only two series, but the hurdle was an eye-opening glimpse. Bush is an eight-year veteran who’s determined to show he has plenty of burst left. The former Heisman Trophy winner has dived into the task, displaying leadership skills, too.
Several hours before the game, Bush tweeted, “It may not count but it does matter! Detroit let’s go earn our respect tonight!” No one earns respect in an exhibition game and Bush knows it, but he also knows how important his role could be. He said he wanted to start developing chemistry immediately, and that’s really all this was, a start.
“It felt good to get my feet wet and get a feel for the Lions’ stadium,” Bush said. “This is actually my first time in the stadium. It’s big, nice, I’ve enjoyed being here.”
We won’t know his impact until the games actually count and the Lions run their full offense. But you could see Jets defenders already edging in on Bush, leaving Johnson open. This was barely a glimpse, with receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles sitting out, but there were decent signs.
Even the Lions’ previously horrific special teams stirred to life. They spent a fifth-round pick on punter Sam Martin, and his first boot was a well-placed 54-yarder. And who knows, the Lions might have a placekicking battle for the first time in a couple decades, following Jason Hanson’s retirement.
Veteran David Akers nailed field goals of 47 and 35 yards. Then later, as the crowd roared, the Norwegian oddity known as Kickalicious, Havard Rugland, drilled a 49-yard field goal. He added a 50-yarder, and in his first-ever football game, the longest of long-shots made an impression.
No one made a bigger first impression than Ansah, although he wasn’t biting on any of the hyperbole.
“It’s a great way to start,” Ansah said. “Everybody did their job on defense for me to be able to get that. So it’s not about me.”
Impressions and impacts, that’s what the NFL exhibition season is about. Players make good first impressions all the time, but long-term impact is what the Lions seek. From Kickalicious to Ziggylicious (sorry), at least there was something different to see, and a few reasons to look a little closer.