ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Ezekiel Ansah jogged onto the field Sunday afternoon, his white undershirt hanging out from his No. 94 jersey and his dreadlocks flowing from his helmet. It’s an image the Detroit Lions have seen so often throughout his four-plus seasons.
This year, though, Detroit hasn’t seen him as much. Ansah missed six games due to a shoulder injury he suffered in the first half of a blowout loss to the New York Jets. Then, when he came back against Minnesota on Nov. 4, he didn’t come all the way back.
Ansah is Detroit’s most expensive defensive player, with a cap hit of $17.143 million this year on the franchise tag. When healthy, Ansah is also Detroit’s most talented defensive end and arguably top defensive player overall. Yet over the past two weeks, Ansah has been reduced to a role player, playing nine snaps in a blowout loss to Minnesota and 14 snaps in a blowout loss at Chicago.
He mostly has been used in clear pass-rush situations and often on third downs, a far departure from how he was used in Week 1 against New York and in years past, when he was an every-down player with the speed and capability to change a game on his own.
It isn’t clear whether those skills have diminished — his health has always been a problem, and that’s part of why he was tagged instead of given a long-term contract extension in the offseason — but the way the Lions have been using him has been different than in the past.
At least according to the Lions’ coaches, there’s reason for that.
“At lot of it is us trying to get him back into situations where he feels comfortable, where he can play and go out and perform, and where he’s going to help us,” head coach Matt Patricia said. “I think we feel like [he’s] dealing with everything that he’s kind of progressed through here to get better, to get out on the field from that standpoint.”
Every day, the Lions have monitored Ansah’s progress. They’ve given him incrementally more to do in order to see how he handles it — remember, beyond the regular season Ansah missed much of the spring and part of training camp due to injury — and are hoping to give him more work by the week.
It’s something the Lions could benefit from because the pass rush, statistics notwithstanding, has once again been poor this season. The Lions have 25 sacks, but many of those came due to the secondary locking up coverage instead of a front-seven player beating his man.
The Lions haven’t registered more than two sacks in a game since Oct. 21. Detroit also has pulled back on the blitz. After blitzing Russell Wilson 10 times in a loss to Seattle, the Lions have blitzed just three times the past two weeks. Not blitzing forces Detroit’s defenders to beat their assigned man in order to create pressure, something Ansah is adept at.
“He’s been very explosive coming off the ball,” defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “I think he’s starting to get back into feeling good and feeling like he wants to feel, and that’s a work in progress. He’s making progress each day, each week.
“We’re giving him as many reps as we can at practice, and we’re evaluating it on a daily basis as we work through the week. I would say that Ziggy is headed in a good direction.”
For the Lions’ sake, though, they need to start letting him play more because a healthy Ansah can make a massive difference. Unlike many of the other front-seven players the Lions have, he has the ability to change a game on his own. With Detroit’s season heading the way it has been heading — three straight double-digit losses and quarterbacks who have picked the Lions apart — any increase in production from their best defensive player would be almost necessary.
Cornerback Nevin Lawson, who has played with Ansah his entire career, said he sees Ansah getting “back to where he wants to be.”
“Ziggy is a special player, and obviously he’s one of the best pass-rushers in this league,” Lawson said. “Whenever you have him on the field and you know it’s a pass, you know it’s a chance that he can get pressure or get to the quarterback on a pass play.”