The Lions took Ziggy Ansah with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Ndamukong Suh is the Lions’ best defensive player, and safety James Ihedigbo and cornerback Darius Slay will be relied on heavily to shore up the secondary.
But the key to the defense this year will likely be a player who was in the press very little during the offseason program.
If second-year defensive end Ziggy Ansah, the fifth overall pick in 2013, takes the necessary step forward in his development, the defensive line could return to its dominant play from 2011 and help the Lions be contenders in a tough NFC North in 2014.
Throughout the 2013 season, Lions players and coaches were adamant that their lack of sacks wasn’t a problem because of how much pressure the defensive line created.
To an extent, they were right. According to Pro Football Focus, the Lions had the seventh-best pass rush in the NFL last season, but the website’s metrics showed the majority of pressure came from Suh.
The pass rush was effectively a loud dog with little bite as the Lions ranked 28th in the NFL with just 33 sacks. As important as it is to force a quarterback into a rushed decision, an incomplete pass on second down is not nearly as valuable as a sack that leads to a third-and-20. The Lions also forced just 22 turnovers, tied for 21st in the league.
That’s why the Lions’ insistence that the sack total was a non-issue was so nonsensical. Seven of the eight NFL division winners last season ranked in the top 13 in sacks, and that’s hardly a coincidence.
A sack can quickly end a drive, and the Lions’ close-but-no-cigar pressure too often allowed opponents to continue marching. Second-rate quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Mike Glennon needed little time finding open receivers against a Lions secondary that won’t necessarily be better this year, which is why they need the pressure to turn into production.
'He's going to rush'
Containing the top-tier receiving corps on the Packers and Bears will be difficult for most secondaries, so the best way for the Lions to slow those offenses is to take down Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, respectively.
The Lions will have a much more blitz-happy defense this season under coordinator Teryl Austin, but for the aggressive group to reach its peak effectiveness, Ansah must be a consistent difference-maker.
If he can play near the level Cliff Avril did in 2011, when he had 11 sacks and six forced fumbles, the Lions will be able to mask their lackluster secondary. Ansah doesn’t necessarily need double-digit sacks for the Lions to be winners, but his play at least needs to create openings for other rushers to actually take down the quarterback.
Ansah missed the entire offseason program as he recovered from shoulder surgery, and declined multiple interview requests, including the chance to talk about his native Ghana playing the U.S. in the World Cup. We have yet to hear exactly what role he’ll play in Austin’s scheme, though the coach gave a brief explanation during organized team activities.
“He’ll do what we’re asking our rush ends to do,” he said. “He’s going to rush. He’s going to drop. He’s going to move to different positions. He’s going to do some different things.”
Austin also said that Ansah will have to catch up with the new scheme during training camp, though being present for OTAs and minicamp will help flatten his learning curve.
Flashes not enough
Because of Ansah’s elite athleticism, he should do fine dropping into coverage when asked, something he showed a bit during his time at BYU.
But the Lions need Ansah to be a force on the edge this season, someone who can dominate one-on-one matchups, which he’ll have regularly due to the attention drawn by Suh and, to a lesser extent, Nick Fairley.
The Lions are glad to have veteran end Jason Jones back, the likely starter opposite Ansah. Devin Taylor, a fourth-round pick in 2013, and veteran Darryl Tapp should be adequate reserves, but nobody in the group has the potential of Ansah.
Last year, Ansah led all rookies with eight sacks and had two forced fumbles in 14 games. He also battled through shoulder and ankle injuries during the season, so his health will be critical to the Lions’ season.
The flashes Ansah showed in 2013 made him look worthy of his draft slot, but flashes won’t be enough in his second season. Young pass rushers like Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn and others have proven capable of becoming among the best in the NFL within their first three seasons, and the best way for the Lions to be contenders this season is for Ansah to quickly make the leap.