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Niyo: After five seasons, Lions' Ansah still has much to prove

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) logged 12 sacks last season.

Allen Park — Let’s not forget about Ziggy.

That was Matt Patricia’s message to Lions’ season-ticket holders back in April. And it’s a message that’s worth repeating now, after a lackluster preseason red-flagged the readiness of Patricia’s new-look defense this fall.

Ezekiel Ansah isn’t merely one of the few holdovers left from last year’s defensive front, as Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn began the personnel overhaul to implement a new scheme. He’s basically the only proven pass rusher on the Lions’ roster.

And yet he enters his sixth NFL season — perhaps his last in Detroit — with as much to prove as anyone. The 29-year-old Ansah is playing 2018 on the franchise tag, auditioning for a free-agent contract next spring while trying to put to rest the injury concerns that have plagued him the last two years.

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Ansah had shoulder and knee surgeries the past two offseasons, and was hampered by ankle, back and knee injuries during the regular season. And while his sack total rebounded last fall after a dismal 2016, nine of his 12 sacks came in three games against bad teams.

Still, after a precautionary injury absence early in training camp, Ansah, who has missed just seven games over his career, appears healthy now, practicing at full speed “with no lingering effects,” according to defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.

Ansah, for his part, won’t offer much more than that.

“I feel great, when I’m healthy,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Disguised coverages

And maybe it really is that simple. For all the talk about the complexities of Patricia’s defense — all the moving parts and disguised coverages, the blitzing linebackers and dime packages — that unit’s success will hinge on Ansah’s ability to remind everyone why he was the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft. Or why he’ll be one of the five highest-paid defensive players in the NFL this season, at least in salary-cap terms.

“When he’s coming off the edge, it’s a whole other dimension to this defense,” safety Quandre Diggs said, shortly after he’d signed his own three-year contract extension to stay in Detroit. “It changes everything. Zig is one of the best pass-rushers in this league. And when he commands double-teams and still gets sacks, or when he’s 1-on-1 and working his man, that takes a lot of pressure off the secondary and we love that.

“So I think you guys are gonna be in for a good treat this year, just because this is probably the most healthy I’ve seen him.”

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How long that lasts, it’s impossible to predict. Last year, Ansah clearly was limited to start the season, yet he enjoyed a breakout three-sack game dominating the Giants’ overmatched left tackle Ereck Flowers in Week 2.

It wouldn’t be a shock to see something similar Monday night in the opener against the Jets, a team starting a rookie quarterback behind an offensive line that ranked among the league’s worst in 2017. A line has its own health concerns heading into this season, by the way. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum didn’t play at all in the preseason due to a foot injury.

Ziggy Ansah

Mysterious defense

Then again, we’re not really sure what to expect from the Lions’ defense. The secondary returns largely intact and figures be a strength again, but Quinn and Patricia made wholesale changes in the front seven, as promised. Wednesday’s decision to claim defensive end Romeo Okwara off waivers from the Giants, cutting loose Anthony Zettel, was only the latest example of that.

Just how well all those new pieces fit together is an open question, though. No team gave up more points in the preseason than the Lions did, and only three allowed more rushing yards. The Lions also managed just two sacks in four games.

For now, much of that can be pinned on the absence of game-planning in the preseason. But that won’t be the case moving forward, and the Lions probably can’t afford the kind of slow start defensively the Patriots endured last September under Patricia.

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"The defense will change,” Patricia said. ‘Whatever it looks like this week will be I’m sure much different then it will be midway through the year. That’s kind of how the NFL works. Whether it’s roster or scheme or players or whatever it may be, it all kind of changes.”

Ansah says he’s excited about some of the changes he sees in the Lions’ defense, though the former Pro Bowler declined to say how different his role might be. Truth is, it’ll likely change from week to week, as Patricia utilizes his explosive ability as well as length and leverage as a run-stopper.

“Obviously. it’s gonna be a dynamic scheme where I can pretty much do anything or everything,” Ansah said. “But we’ll just wait until the season and you’re gonna find out.”

Still, he adds, “I feel like I can have a big season in any defense.”

Either way, I’m not sure that’ll affect his long-term future in Detroit. Paying a premium for pass rushers hasn’t been a part of the Patriots’ blueprint, a point driven home as Bill Belichick parted with the likes of Richard Seymour and Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins over the years. 

But Ansah insists he’s not worried about that now.

“I just gotta take care of my job,” he says.

And lest anyone forget, it’s a critical one for the Lions.