September 24, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions rookie Ziggy Ansah fits in quicker than expected

Lions first-round pick, Ziggy Ansah, here forcing Redskins QB Robert Griffin III to fumble, has effectively used his 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame on the defensive line this season. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — Jim Schwartz called his shot on draft night.

Now Ziggy Ansah, perhaps proving he’s as quick a study as advertised, is calling his own.

Late last week, the Lions rookie first-round pick responded to repeated questions about trying to corral Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III with a shrug and a promise, of sorts.

“I wouldn’t mind making plays on him at all, and I know that I will,” Ansah said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

If you saw what happened, as Ansah filled the stat sheet and, frequently, the Redskins backfield, you saw he was right. And so were the Lions, it appears.

After spending a week at the Senior Bowl coaching the raw-but-talented pass rusher back in January, Detroit’s defensive coaching staff was convinced the Ghanaian-born BYU standout was exactly the kind of player they needed as they overhauled their front four.

“You hear things when people talk about Ziggy,” Schwartz said in April, immediately defending the team’s choice. “They say, ‘Well, he’s going to need work on learning the game and instincts.’ Watch this guy play. He is very, very instinctive.”

Watching the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder in action the past few weeks, that much is obvious. And though Ansah was in and out of last weekend’s game at FedEx Field and might miss some practice time this week — “He was beat up a little bit,” Schwartz acknowledged Monday — he was just about everywhere on the field when he was in there.

“He makes plays whenever he goes in the game,” said Schwartz, downplaying talk of a “progression” or a learning curve for the rookie. “I mean, he learns something new every week. He practices well. His technique continues to improve. But he just has that knack for being able to make a play on the field. And this game was no different.”

Far from overwhelmed

This game is still relatively new to Ansah, of course. That has been well-documented, what with his unique back story — he’d never played football until a few years ago — and his soaring draft stock last winter.

But any notion that he’d find the NFL game overwhelming as a rookie already is out the window.

After playing just less than half of the defensive snaps in the opener against Minnesota — two weeks removed from a concussion he suffered in practice — Ansah has played nearly 100 snaps the last two weeks. Sunday, he was on the field for 48 of the Lions’ 77 defensive plays, despite some injury time, and he was beyond productive, finishing with seven tackles — third most on the team — along with two sacks and a forced fumble.

Overall, he has 11 tackles — most among Lions defensive linemen — to go with a team-high 2.5 sacks and a handful of quarterback hits. That doesn’t include a pair of strip-sack fumbles negated by penalties, though the one against the Vikings was the result of Ansah jumping offside.

Ansah credits the interior tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley for much of his early success, and rightly so. Fairley was dominant against the Vikings, while Suh is playing at an All-Pro level thus far.

But Suh, who has openly embraced the 24-year-old rookie — “We’re very similar in the way we came into the game of football,” he says — believes Ansah’s production is rooted in something else, too.

“He started later than me — but not too much later than me — and so really what that does is it forces you to use your athletic ability,” Suh said.

Turning him loose

That, as much as anything, was the takeaway from the Lions pre-draft work with Ansah. He takes coaching well, but he thrived at the Senior Bowl “when we just let him play,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. So that is essentially what they’re doing with him now, lining him up wide right — the left side is where the biggest change has come in the Lions wide-nine tweak this season — and setting him loose.

Rewind last weekend’s game and you’ll see plenty of examples of that. There’s Ansah beating left tackle Trent Williams, the fourth overall pick from 2010, and drawing a holding penalty on the first play of a second-quarter drive. There’s Ansah chasing down Alfred Morris to make a huge diving tackle on the opening drive of the second half. And there’s Ansah again cleaning up with a sack after Suh made a mess of things on the next Redskins possession.

Game-wreckers, Schwartz calls them. And that’s what the Lions are banking on after investing three of their last four first-round picks in that defensive front. Detroit’s secondary is improved — two legit safeties on the field can make a world of difference — but it’s the pass rush that travels well, as they say, in the NFL. Last weekend’s game — particularly the second half — provided more evidence of that.

But pressure?

“There’s no pressure on us at all,” Ansah said. “If the defensive coordinator tells us to go straight to the quarterback, we go straight to the quarterback. If we’re going to tackle the guy, we’re going to tackle the guy.”

Sounds simple enough. But sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, I guess.

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