Resurgent Ansah heads Lions’ revived defensive front

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Lions defensive linemen Anthony Zettel, left, and Tahir Whitehead stop Giants running back Paul Perkins on Monday night.

Allen Park — The fact that the Lions’ defensive line put pressure on the Giants and quarterback Eli Manning isn’t much of a surprise. But getting to him five times was something of a shocker, especially with the questions about whether Ziggy Ansah could get back to his production of 2015.

Ansah finished with three sacks on Monday, anchoring a defensive line that ranks in the top 10 in points allowed (tied for seventh), total defense (seventh), rushing defense (fourth) and takeaways (tied for second).

Last season, Ansah totaled just two sacks in 13 games, but is returning to his form in ’15, when he notched 14.5. The rest of the line is helping, shutting down the running game and forcing teams into passing situations, where the Lions can thrive with their pass rush.

“We played well, especially last week with Ziggy getting three — that really helps us out with sack production — but we played well as a unit,” defensive end Cornelius Washington said. “When you’re talking about 45 yards (the Cardinals) got rushing and then 60-something this week. Nobody’s doing that.

“We’re stuffing this run up, then we get to rush the passer — that’s what it’s about. That’s a total D-Line play, with all four guys across the board.”

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Beyond the pressure, the Lions defense was able to get off the field on third downs, allowing the Giants just four conversions on 12 attempts.

Coach Jim Caldwell has seen some progress on the defensive end, amid the criticism from last season. Two games is a small sample size, but the initial indications are good — with the toughest test yet coming this week against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

“They’ve stepped up to the challenge for two weeks, but there’s a third one looming, and a very good one at that,” Caldwell said. “The minute you start talking about what you think you’ve gotten done in this league, you end up getting your ears kicked in.

“Right now, we’ve played okay for two games. We know we got a big one coming up and with an outstanding football team with a lot of great personnel, and they’re going to be tough to handle. So, we got to focus on what we’re going to do this week as opposed to what we got done the previous two. But we’ve got a little production.”

Stopping the Lions’ defense already is on Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s radar.

He pointed out their sure tackling as one of their biggest improvements, but also noted their line play. It’s a concern for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was the league MVP last season.

“They’re tackling well; that part of the fundamentals really looks sharp,” Quinn said Wednesday via conference call. “That part of the game looks like there aren’t a lot of free plays to be made based on the tackling.

“When you have a front like they do that can disrupt, you’d better have your pass protection ready.”

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Intriguing parallel

There aren’t many comparisons between the resurgent Ansah and the game’s elite wide receivers — such as the Falcons’ Julio Jones — but Lions safety Glover Quin drew an intriguing parallel with respect to their importance on the field and the attention they should garner.

“It makes a big difference because Ziggy is like one of those receivers that’s super-talented. You always have to know where the receiver is; you probably need to know what side of the line Ziggy is on,” Quin said.

“In certain situations, you double certain receivers and that’s going to open it up for other receivers. If you double-team Ziggy, it’s going to open it up for our other pass rushers to be one-on-one. Having a guy like him healthy is key.”

The defense is clicking on all cylinders, creating turnovers, returning interceptions for touchdowns and stopping the run. That just makes it easier for the Lions’ offense, enabling them to control the tempo of the game and play at their own desired pace.

“Those guys fly around and in a great position right now,” Quin said. “They’re bringing it every single play and making quarterbacks uncomfortable, he’s got to think about Ziggy — and you can see the last two games: they made a huge difference in our wins.

“We like it; hopefully those guys continue to bring it and play good football.”

For Washington, just playing on the opposite site from Ansah creates its own opportunities, where he can take advantage of the coverage shifting to Ansah’s side. It’s no surprise to Washington what Ansah has been able to do, now that’s he’s back to full health.

“He just confirmed everything I already thought: He is who he is. He’s a great player; Ziggy is the man,” Washington said. “Being on the other side of him is going to free stuff up for everybody else.

“Later in the season, he’s going to start getting a lot of double-teams; nobody’s going to let him come off the edge and keep tearing their quarterback up every week. It frees everything up for everybody on the rest of the line.”