Injuries hamper Lions’ ability to feel the rush
Allen Park — If the Detroit Lions’ have a glaring concern at this stage of the offseason, it’s the team’s ability to rush the passer.
An issue last year, when the team finished near the bottom of the league in both sacks and quarterback pressures, little was done to address the deficiency in the draft and free agency. Now, just a few days into training camp, mounting injuries are only exacerbating the concern.
Ziggy Ansah, the former Pro Bowler being counted on to have a bounceback year, is currently on the physically unable to perform list, highlighting his career-spanning battle with durability. And while it’s not the time to be sounding an alarm, he did sit out a good part of the early portion of the offseason program and remains without a timetable to return to the practice field.
On Monday, free-agent addition Cornelius Washington, widely expected to be the third man in the team’s rotation behind Ansah and Kerry Hyder, went down with a left leg injury. He left the field with a heavy limp on Monday and didn’t practice Tuesday.
Additionally, the Lions are without Armonty Bryant, a 2016 waiver claim who provided a pass-rushing spark with three sacks in five games before an injury prematurely ended his year. He’s also on the PUP list, and once healthy, he still has a looming four-game suspension to serve at the start of the season.
That leaves Hyder, who burst on the scene to lead the team with 8.5 sacks in 2016, and a slew of unproven youth to man defensive end for the time being.
The Lions prefer to roll deep along the defensive line, rotating four, sometimes five ends during the regular season. Asked if he was concerned about the team’s worsening numbers issue, coach Jim Caldwell preached adaptation.
“I think we’ll have the numbers, but if we don’t have the numbers, we’ll develop ironmen,” Caldwell said. “Guys who can just go the distance and play a little bit longer and a little bit more frequently and we might not be able to sub as much.”
Endurance is an admirable trait, and one Hyder and second-year end Anthony Zettel have the ability to offer, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to pass-rushing effectiveness. The Lions have to find more ways to get to the quarterback.
With Ansah, Washington and Bryant out, Zettel has been taking reps with the first-team defense. The Lions have already seen signs of improvement in his second season.
“He came back from the winter break in great physical condition,” Caldwell said. “He’s working at it all the time, trying to take care of all the little things. We see some improvement already, so we’ll see what happens when we get into ball games.”
Zettel stood out Wednesday during one-on-one pass-rush drills. Going against the top contenders for the team’s starting left tackle job — Cyrus Kouandjio and Greg Robinson — Zettel exploded out of his stance and got the corner on both reps.
Zettel rarely showcased that type of quickness last season.
“I got a lot faster and more flexible,” Zettel said. “My take off is a lot better. I think I’m in better shape. …In the offseason, I do lot of reaction drills and timing (drills) and I think that helps.”
Zettel spent his offseason in Pittsburgh working out with a dozen or so NFL players, mostly Penn State alum, at Evolution Sports Institute.
If Zettel can emerge as a reliable option, it would provide the Lions with a huge boost. With injuries plaguing the position group, it creates an opportunity for a younger player or two to step up, whether it’s him or one of the team’s rookies — seventh-round pick Pat O’Connor or undrafted Alex Barrett. They will have a shot to prove they can be the next Hyder, or George Johnson from a few seasons back.
Johnson, who had accomplished little in four NFL seasons before signing with the Lions, tallied six sacks in 2014, his only season with the franchise.
Those out-of-nowhere performances have been key for the Lions in recent years. They appear to need another, as much as ever, even if Ansah and Washington can stay healthy.
“We hope we have more than one, more than one guy that comes out of nowhere,” Caldwell said. “It’s helpful for us.”
The Lions finished with 26 sacks last season, matching the team’s lowest total in 16 years.