ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Bo Davis got his new job with the Detroit Lions, settled in and opened up some video. His bosses wanted his opinion on some of his new defensive linemen. As he went through, he eventually reached Ezekiel Ansah.
Coming from UTEP, Davis hadn’t studied Ansah much. As he watched, it didn’t take very long for Davis to know he had something potentially special to work with. He saw Ansah’s speed. How he beat offensive tackles off the snap and through the edge of the pocket.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this guy can go, man,’" Davis says now, months after his first viewing and weeks after starting to work with the Lions’ top pass-rusher. “This guy has great quickness off the ball. He can bend. He can turn. So you could see his athleticism, all his athletic ability, you can see all that.
“I mean, it’s there.”
Ansah’s talent was raw when the Lions made him the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft out of BYU, a relative football neophyte after picking up the game in college following playing soccer, basketball and track growing up in Ghana. It became refined working with Kris Kocurek his first four years, creating a Pro Bowl appearance in 2015 and 44 sacks since 2013. Only 10 players brought down opposing quarterbacks more in that span.
Of those 11, Ansah reached his mark in the fewest amount of snaps. Which leads to the conundrum for Detroit. When Ansah is on the field and healthy, he’s one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the game, the reason Detroit gave him the franchise tag heading into this season. But that’s the key – when he’s healthy.
While Ansah has missed only seven games over his first four years, he has been consistently hampered by injuries. It’s why, when he does talk with the media, usually one of the first questions asked is something along the lines of “How are you feeling?” or “How’s your (insert-a-body-part-here)?” Ansah usually gives a non-answer. But you can see it on the field, the difference in the defense when Ansah is healthy versus not.
“I feel great when I’m healthy,” Ansah said – about as much as he’s going to say about his body. “It’s just as simple as that.” Is this the best he’s felt starting a season, though? “It’s the best I’m going to feel as of today.” Which doesn’t say much.
After missing most of spring practice and again starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list, concerns again popped up about his health. Entering the regular season, he seems confident about how he feels. And that’s a big change for a defense in desperate need of his pass rush.
A healthy Ansah forces teams to worry about him every play. That opens up everything else.
“It changes everything,” defensive back Quandre Diggs said. “Zig is one of the best pass-rushers in this league. When he commands double-teams and still gets sacks or when he’s one on one and working his man, you know, that takes a lot of pressure off the secondary and we love that.
“So I think you guys will be in for a good treat this year because this is probably the most healthy I’ve seen him.”
Ansah has known about offenses prepping for him since his Pro Bowl season. That year was a breakout one in more ways than one. Yes, he made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and had career-bests of 14.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. It also became clear how talented Ansah is.
His first two years, the Lions' front seven was a preparation nightmare. Ansah on the edge, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle and DeAndre Levy as a do-it-all linebacker caused offensive coordinator agita. In 2015, Suh and Fairley were elsewhere. Levy missed the whole season injured. Focus shifted to Ansah, even with Haloti Ngata replacing Suh in the middle.
Ansah handled the double teams by having the best season of his career. The attention hasn’t stopped. Teams typically slide protections toward him, forcing him to beat at least two blockers to reach the quarterback. Davis, who has yet to coach Ansah in a regular-season game, said it can be “frustrating to him as a player.” Ansah understands why it’s coming. And Davis stresses what has to happen for the defense to capitalize on it.
“You have to make the other guys be aware that you know the protection is going there so now we have to make sure we rush a different way and do certain things to help because we know they are going to slide and try to chip him and do different things,” Davis said. “We have to make guys aware that, ‘OK, we have to do certain things away from where he is.'"
As Detroit transitions from the 4-3 defense Ansah has played in his first four years to a hybrid defense with multiple fronts, it has brought new players and schemes trying to free him up.
The Lions signed Devon Kennard and traded for Eli Harold as potential rush linebackers to offer Ansah more options. They also return Kerry Hyder from an Achilles injury that ended his 2017 season in the preseason and Anthony Zettel, who had 6.5 sacks playing opposite Ansah last season.
As much as the pass rush is team-based, it starts with Ansah. He could move around more than in years past, the Lions searching for attractive matchups. What does it mean for him?
“I think you’re just going to have to find out,” Ansah said. “But obviously, it’s going to be a dynamic scheme where I can pretty much do anything. So we’ll just wait until the season and then we’ll find out.”
This season is big for him, the Lions’ one known pass-rush option in a front seven largely full of unknowns. And even Ansah has one big unknown.
Part of the reason Ansah is playing on the tag instead of a life-changing extension like some of his pass-rushing brethren received earlier this year is because of his health combined with his age – he turns 30 in May. None of that bothers him. He’s not disappointed playing out his tag, instead saying he’s “grateful” to be in the spot he is.
“At the end of the day you just have to know, guys game-plan for Ziggy,” Diggs said. “Guys just not going to let him sack the quarterback. That would be crazy. So, you know, they game-plan for him.
“And when he’s coming off the edge, it’s just a whole other dimension for this defense. We’re definitely excited about that.”