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Lions reward Zettel's hustle with increased playing time

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions Anthony Zettel picks up Rams running back Todd Gurley cutting through a hole and puts him down to the turf in the third quarter.

Allen Park — No one expects much out of a sixth-round pick, but the Lions have unearthed some diamonds in the penultimate round of the draft in recent years.

In 2013, they scored running back Theo Riddick, who has developed into one of NFL’s finest pass catchers out of the backfield. Last year, it was cornerback Quandre Diggs, the starting nickel who has outplayed his size and measurable.

Defensive end Anthony Zettel is looking to add his name to list of sixth-round finds.

The West Branch native who starred at Penn State earned a roster spot with a late push during the preseason, but was a healthy scratch the first two weeks of the regular season. Since cracking the lineup in Week 3, Zettel has seen his playing time steadily increase.

“He’s one of those guys that’s got kind of a restless soul,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “He just never stops. He hustles, he’s always looking to try to get better. You can see it on the field, he just keeps becoming a factor more and more.

“He makes plays and gets to the ball where ordinarily you’d think that he’d have a difficult time doing,” Caldwell said. “He usually doesn’t make the same mistake twice, so all of those things you like about him.”

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Zettel has a quirky personality. There are videos online of him tackling a dead tree and reacting Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” for a school project, but since he’s joined the Lions, he’s checked his fun side at the door, putting his nose down in an effort to earn the respect of his peers and the coaching staff.

The laser-like focus on football has paid off. After playing seven snaps in his debut, he worked 27 reps last week. Zettel recorded just one tackle against Washington, but his impact wasn’t encapsulated by the box score. He pressured Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins multiple times down the stretch.

“I’ve been that way my entire career,” Zettel said. “I always played better late. I just make better plays once I get a feel for an offensive line.”

Understandably, he’s still adjusting to the NFL. But it’s not the increased speed or strength of the competition that have been tripping up Zettel. It’s deciphering the elevated deception used by professional offenses and ensuring he’s playing with improved technical precision, because better competition allows for fewer wasted movements.

It’s the difference that turns a quarterback pressure into a sack.

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“I feel like I’m getting the hang of it,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference from college is the quarterbacks are so much smarter. They know when the blitzes are coming, they know when guys are coming from behind them and they get rid of the ball quick.”

Zettel is still looking for his first sack, but he’s getting closer and it appears the increased opportunities aren’t going away anytime soon.

He’s still a long way off from having the impact Riddick or Diggs have had for the Lions, but contributing this early as a sixth-round pick puts Zettel ahead of the curve.

Twitter: Justin_Rogers