Detroit News sportswriters Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers take a look at the upcoming season for the Detroit Lions. Detroit News
Allen Park — For more than a month, Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah had been on ice.
Officially, he’s been dealing with a knee injury, suffered during the early portions of the offseason program, but the team’s extremely cautious handling of the 6-foot-5 defensive end has been prudent. There isn’t a player more important to the team’s defensive success this season.
Without an effective pass rush in the NFL, a defense is doomed from the start. And without Ansah, it’s difficult to imagine the Lions having an effective pass rush.
“There are only a few guys that have the kind of explosion, power, size, that he has,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We don’t have a lot of guys on our team like that genetically built the way he’s constructed. …He can create some problems.”
For two years, Ansah terrorized opposing backfields. The 2013 first-round pick was one of the league’s most efficient pass-rushers, generating pressure at a higher rate than almost every other edge rusher in 2014 and 2015.
That second season, he started converting the pressure into sacks at a higher clip, finishing with 14.5, just shy of the franchise record. He earned his first Pro Bowl appearance and appeared on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL’s next great sack artists.
But the injury bug bit hard last season. In Week 2, Ansah suffered a high-ankle sprain that knocked him from the lineup the next three games and nagged him the rest of the year. And while he wasn’t entirely ineffective, the sacks evaporated. He didn’t record his first until Week 15 and finished the year with two.
“It wasn’t easy dealing with whatever I was dealing with,” Ansah said earlier this offseason. “But I know that there’s always a time in life where you always go through the obstacle and that kind of teaches a person how to be a man, how you’re going to deal with it. I’m glad 2016 is over, I’m just looking forward to 2017.”
With Ansah’s production down, the entire defense suffered. Up front, the Lions struggled to manufacture consistent pressure, both from the defensive line and a variety of blitz packages.
The team finished with 26 sacks and 71 quarterback hurries, ranking 31st in the league in both categories. Kerry Hyder, a practice squad player the two previous years, led the team with eight sacks and 13 hurries. A pleasant surprise, no doubt, but a far cry from what Ansah is capable of offering.
And while the team had some personnel deficiencies in the back end, don’t think for a second the inept pass rush didn’t contribute to the record-setting efficiency opposing quarterbacks posted against Detroit last season.
The Lions addressed some of their defensive problems this offseason. The linebacker group underwent a makeover, the secondary and defensive tackle rotations are deeper and more talented, but defensive end remains the biggest of question marks, looming larger following the loss of Hyder to a season-ending Achilles injury.
The Lions desperately need Ansah to return to form or risk a repeat of the defense’s 2016 struggles.
The team believes he will. General manager Bob Quinn and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin have said as much. But with Ansah only returning to practice this week, and in a limited capacity and potentially on a pitch count for the season opener, it’s fair to wonder how quickly he’ll get back up to speed.
“I think he’s moving fine,” Austin said. “He’s been working hard behind the scenes obviously, that nobody would see. He’s going to have a little rust, like they all do when they come back a little bit, but I think he’ll be fine.
“He’s played a lot of snaps for us, he knows our system very well. It’s going to be the speed of the game and getting caught back up that way, and I think he’ll adjust fine.”
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