Wayne State, Groves LB Anthony Pittman surviving numbers game with Lions

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Anthony Pittman

Allen Park — Twenty-one players have spent time on the 10-man practice squad for the Lions this season.

Some, like running back David Williams and defensive tackle Frank Herron, lasted one day.

Others take a more circuitous route: Defensive end Jonathan Wynn made the practice squad out of training camp, has been cut twice and then re-added to the team both times — all since Sept. 1.

It makes Anthony Pittman’s sticking with the Lions practice squad all along that much more impressive for the former Birmingham Groves and Wayne State standout.

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Being a numerical anomaly is nothing new for Pittman, who represents a pair of green and gold local programs without much history of NFL success.

"It’s an honor to be able to set the standard,” Pittman said. “Those guys practiced with me, played games with me, know me personally. And they know if I can make it, then they know what it takes to set the example. It means a lot to me. I just want to keep making everyone proud."

Pittman is one of four players to stick with the practice squad all season, an indication the Lions believe he has a chance to someday continue their local tradition.

The Lions have not yet had a Michigan resident suit up for a regular-season game this year. If they don’t, this would be the first year since the Portsmouth Spartans moved from southern Ohio to become the Detroit Lions in 1934 that an in-state man didn’t suit up.

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Pittman is the only Michigan product out of the 66 players on Detroit’s active roster, practice squad or injured reserve list.

Pittman was a lightly regarded defensive end in his junior year of high school, but flourished as a senior middle linebacker in the first of now seven straight playoff seasons for Groves.

Still, when Pittman was leaving high school, coach Brendan Flaherty said he thought his best football was ahead of him at Wayne State.

“It was one of those perfect storms for him,” Flaherty said. “The body matured and I think things just kind of came together for him. Some of those guys, when a man’s lightbulb goes on, things just start getting better and better.”

Lions rookie player Anthony Pittman works on the finishing touches of his coat pocket.

But the reality, Flaherty said, was Pittman was probably third on the pecking order of football recruits from Groves in 2014 behind cornerback Ross Williams, who went to Eastern Michigan, and linebacker Bryce Anderson, who went to Northern Iowa.

Pittman is now the third former Groves player to make the NFL: Aaron Webster spent time with Houston and on the Chicago practice squad, and DeOn’tae Pannell was with New Orleans in training camp in 2012.

Pro-Football-Reference.com lists 12 Wayne State players in NFL history, with Joique Bell of Detroit the most recent, wrapping up his six-year career in 2016 with his second Detroit stint.

When Pittman joined the Lions as one of 90 players at training camp, it was easy to write him off as a feel-good summer story that will be gone when the real games begin in September.

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But Flaherty is not surprised Pittman has stuck around.

While Pittman’s game took off under coach Paul Winters at Wayne State, his high school coach also noticed something different about the man when Pittman visited his alma mater to talk to Groves players during their rigorous “Spring Survivor” workouts in 2018.

“I just couldn’t believe the maturity and what he was saying, and just his mindset and focus,” Flaherty said. “He was very inspiring.  The coaches and the adults in the circle were riveted.

“You could see it in the guy’s eyes. I know that sounds trite or whatever, but you knew the guy had that mindset.”

Pittman was a two-year captain and two-time all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate performer for Wayne State.

But he didn’t really reach the radar of top Lions’ brass until a local pre-draft workout in April that featured players from the Big Ten to the NAIA, where Pittman’s speed and size caught their attention.

Lions linebacker Anthony Pittman (57) helps tackle Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30) earlier this year.

Pittman was brought in undrafted and made 14 tackles in Detroit’s four preseason games, starting the final one.

At 6-foot-3, he fits the mold of big players coach Matt Patricia wants on his defense. His slight 224 pounds for Wayne State has ticked up to 240, and his practice play has impressed as well as his acumen in meetings, defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said.

“He’s very smooth and athletic,” Pasqualoni said. “He’s very long. He’s a big guy. He’s a very young, developmental guy. Hell of a person. Great human being and really a great guy.”

Pittman said veterans Christian Jones and Devon Kennard have shown him the standard. Both players came out of college in 2014 when Pittman left Groves — Jones undrafted out of Florida State, Kennard a fifth-rounder out of USC.

Both players worked their way up to NFL starting lineups, and Kennard is noticing the right approach from Pittman.

“He’s very methodical with his studying and everything he’s doing,” Kennard said. “When you’re a young guy, you do things the right way, you’re working hard, you earn the respect of the guys in the room. He’s done a good job with that.

“I think he’s doing a lot of things really well, he’s learning, soaking up the defense. I think he’s progressing well, he’s just got to continue to stay on that path.”

Wearing No. 57 like former Lions mainstay linebacker and two-time Pro Bowler Stephen Boyd, Pittman has made an impression in Allen Park this season.

On the scout team, Pittman has mimicked pass rushers like Chandler Jones, Brandon Graham, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, readying for a chance to suit up on Sundays.

“Just stay ready, anything can happen,’ Pittman said. “Stay locked in on the game plan, stay locked in on recovery.

“Just never take a day off. Stay ready.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.