Ezekiel Ansah ties J.J. Watt for NFL sack lead, 'grateful' for career day

DETROIT -- Ezekiel Ansah had a key around his neck late Thursday afternoon, given to him by a friend, with one word written on it.


It’s understandable why Ansah would have that particular word on his neck, a word he used often late Thursday afternoon after the best game of his career. The Detroit Lions defensive end has come so far from where he started in football, as someone picking up the game as a college student from Ghana who originally ran track at BYU.

And at least until Sunday, when J.J. Watt and Houston face New Orleans, Ansah is tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 11.5.

“This is something I’ve been working for for three years,” Ansah said. “And I had a little emotional moment with my coach [Kris Kocurek] on the sideline. I’m just grateful for this win, you know? It’s Thanksgiving.”

Ansah has made the Lions thankful for taking a chance on him with the No. 5 overall pick in 2013 from almost the minute they drafted him. But Thursday, in a 45-14 blowout over Philadelphia, was a showcase. A game in which he eclipsed double-digit sacks in a season for the first time in his career, when he was essentially in the Eagles' backfield all game long and consistently disrupting anything Philadelphia tried to do.

This was the type of game Ansah always wanted to have, and in some ways for him, it was personal. Philadelphia passed on him in 2013 after he visited the team. Instead, the Eagles took Lane Johnson the pick before Detroit took Ansah -- and Ansah ended up matched up against after Jason Peters got hurt in the first quarter. Ansah said he took the matchup personally.

“We all have good days and bad days,” Ansah said. “I think [Thursday] was my day.”

There seemed to be even more of a motivation for Ansah on Thursday. There was the emotional moment with Kocurek, who had been one of Ansah’s biggest influences and his main teacher during his first three seasons in Detroit.

Then there was the point he seemed to want to prove to the Eagles that they should not have passed on him – something the Lions are clearly grateful for now.

Ansah has progressed from eight sacks as a rookie and 7.5 sacks in 2014 to 11.5 this year. He’s already set a career high with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. And despite seeing double teams more often than he ever had in the first two seasons when the Lions had Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line, he’s thrived.

When Ansah became emotional on the sideline with Kocurek, he wasn’t alone. Some of the other defensive linemen were, too.

“This is something we’ve been behind Ziggy working on,” Lions defensive end Darryl Tapp said. “We see the amount of work Ziggy put in this whole offseason, and even to this point. So for this to happen on such a day where he didn’t just barely get to 10, he eclipsed it and did it on one of the biggest stages of the football season, it’s awesome, man. I’m so proud for that guy.”

Which goes back to the necklace around his neck. This was a day in which he moved past the double-digit mark he set for himself and really reached another level – an unstoppable level that he said earlier this month he eventually wanted to get to.

Considering three years ago he was a raw prospect still learning the game that has made him a star, the message on the key around his neck resonates with him even more.

“It says grateful on it,” Ansah said. “Perfect day.”