Niyo: Ansah’s pride, father give him a push

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Allen Park – Father knows best – or thinks he does, at least -- so Ziggy Ansah knew what was coming as soon as the Lions’ season ended in January.

Ansah, the lone Pro Bowl selection from Detroit’s defense last winter, capped a breakout year with another sack in the Lions’ regular-season finale in Chicago. But that left him a half-sack shy of the franchise single-season record -- Robert Porcher had 15 in 1999 – and expecting a call from his father, Edward, back home in his native Ghana.

And if you’re wondering what motivates the Lions’ young defensive star, well, you might as well start there.

“When they say the record is 15 and you get 14 and a half, and your dad calls you and tells you that you could’ve done better,” Ansah said, laughing.

“He called me right after the season. … My dad is someone who always tries to push me to my limit. And he point-blank said, ‘Well done, but …” Whenever we talk, he says ‘but’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, here we go. …’ ”

But here he is, and considering how far he has come — he’d never played football until six years ago — there’s no telling how far he can go.

Ansah talked at length Thursday about a variety of topics, including his offseason trip to Ghana. He took former Lions teammate Joique Bell along for an adventure that featured a visit to Cape Coast Castle, one of the forts on the coast of West Africa that served as a primary base for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century.

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“We both learned a lot,” Ansah said.

But he also talked about his burgeoning career. Ansah, entering his fourth season, already looks like the top prize in the 2013 draft class. He went fifth overall to Detroit, behind offensive tackles Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson, as well as defensive end Dion Jordan, who has three career sacks and missed all of last season due to a suspension.

Looking for more

Ansah had 3½ in the Thanksgiving Day rout of Philadelphia alone. He nearly doubled his sack total from 2014 to 2015 — only Houston’s J.J. Watt (17½) and Oakland’s Khalil Mack (15) had more last season — and though he won’t say how many he’s targeting this year as a personal goal, it’s obvious he isn’t satisfied.

Not after the way the Lions defense took a step back last year, hampered by key injuries and some aging starters as well as the free-agent loss of Ndamukong Suh. They went from No. 1 in the league in run defense to 19th, and from an 11-5 playoff team to a 7-9 also-ran.

And if there’s a lasting image from last season defensively, it’s of that Hail Mary fiasco against the Packers, when the Lions botched that final play — with Haloti Ngata rushing the passer and Ansah lined up in press man coverage? — to lose a game they’d seemingly won.

“It’s a big year coming,” Ansah said Thursday as the Lions rookies reported for work in Allen Park. “Not just for me, but for the team. … The main focus for me is to help my team win. We’re just trying to win a championship. It starts now, this offseason. We’ve got to put in the work and just make sure that we start fast and finish strong.”

To finish last year in Hawaii at the Pro Bowl certainly meant something, though. And the 26-year-old Ansah, who treated his teammates on the tight-knit defensive line to a tropical vacation, figures to be back for more, even if he’s hardly a household name when it comes to the NFL.

“I know you all know me too well for me to be talking about being a superstar or anything,” he said. “But in my mind, I know who I am and what I’m capable of doing. And I don’t care if anybody’s talking about me or not. The most important thing is my team. As long as my team is comfortable with me and I’m comfortable with them, I’ll be good.”

Focus on improvement

For now, he says he’s comfortable playing at below-market compensation, too, though he doesn’t have much choice. He’ll make less than $3 million this season, and the Lions just picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, meaning Ansah is on the books for $12.7 million next season unless he signs a long-term extension before then.

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He doesn’t need any help doing the math, or evaluating the risks involved. Ansah graduated from BYU with a degree in actuarial science. And he’s well aware the Giants just signed Olivier Vernon, who has 29 career sacks in four seasons, to a five-year, $85 million free-agent deal that included a record $52.5 million in guaranteed money.

“He’s a great player, and I’m happy for his situation,” said Ansah, who has 30 sacks in three seasons. “But that’s him. I’ve just got focus on myself and get better.”

Because if he doesn’t, he knows he’ll hear about it.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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