'Iron sharpens iron': Lions' Ansah, Reiff battle to be better
The closest thing to a fight during Lions training camp practices this month was some brief shoving between left tackle Riley Reiff and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.
The two recent first-round picks battle each other every day in practice in one of the team's top matchups, pitting the Lions' top pass rusher against their top edge blocker. Despite the occasional chippy reactions, Ansah said his relationship with Reiff is "competitive, nothing combative" -- the same words coach Jim Caldwell has used to describe what the team wants to see in practice.
The 23rd overall pick in 2012, Reiff is one of the quietest players on the team, leading by example and following the one set for him by former Lions left tackle Jeff Backus. Ansah, the fifth player taken in 2013, is mostly quiet with the media, but exuberant with his defensive line mates.
And Reiff and Ansah barely talk to each other besides exchanging pleasantries, Ansah said.
"On the field, we talk head to head, helmet to helmet," Ansah said. "We get physical."
Even though the two don't talk much, their constant battles present a challenge to each other and, in turn, have helped two of the Lions' most important players raise their games over the past couple years.
"You know the old saying in the Bible," Caldwell said. "It says, 'Iron sharpens iron,' and I think you get that from Ziggy and from Riley as well. They look forward to working against one another, they challenge one another and I think obviously it makes them better."
Throughout camp, Reiff had a slight edge over Ansah during one-on-one pass rush drills, and both would be visibly frustrated if either won a play by a significant margin. Though Reiff has more experience, both in the NFL and overall as a football player, Ansah has shown more flashes of being a transcendent player, so Reiff's strong camp performance against the end could be a boon for the Lions this season.
"He's definitely grown smarter and that helps me a lot, too, because I know when he's, like, anticipating me to do a specific move, so I've just got to find a counter for it," Ansah said of Reiff.
During their head-to-head competitions, Ansah said he'll try every move he has against Reiff, be it speed, power, inside or outside. The two players never seem to hold back against each other, even though both are as secure in their jobs as anyone else on the team.
"They're special players, truly special players," defensive end Darryl Tapp said.
Although Ansah and Reiff have had plenty of plays against each during regular-season practices in 2013 and 2014, training camp this year was the best chance to test themselves against each other. Rookie growth is often stunted by combine training, and Ansah missed much of last offseason recovering from shoulder surgery.
And even though Ansah just started playing football in 2010, any growth opportunities he missed didn't show on the field as he finished with eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two tackles for loss as a rookie, and 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and eight tackles for loss last season. Ansah's 26 quarterback hits ranked second among all 4-3 players last year, second to only Cincinnati defensive end Carlos Dunlap's 28.
Still, Tapp thinks Ansah and Reiff have just scratched the surface of their potential. The 10-year veteran thinks Ansah could become one of the top defensive ends in the NFL within the next five years.
"He's still so young and new to the game ... so his body is fresh," Tapp said. "He has the desire to be great. He wants to learn. He has no problem humbling himself and asking (Jason Jones) or myself for tips and ideas and things that we see."
Tapp thinks Reiff could become a top offensive tackle within the next five or six years, too.
"Riley is always 100 percent on his sets," Tapp said. "His hand placement is bananas. ... Ziggy and Riley are our two best guys, and they go at it every day, man. So, it's good for them and for the team."