(Author's note: If Ezekiel Ansah's groin injury ends up keeping him out of Monday night's game, just read this entire intro as "What the Lions are losing without Ansah.")
Last week, I ended my article by stating that I really wanted to talk about something positive heading into this week's game against Seattle. Then Sunday night happened and now, we're all left staring into the all-consuming maw of the abyss--playoff hopes (reasonably) dashed, offensive coordinator (reasonably) thrown under the bus. The beginning of the San Diego game seems like it happened an eternity ago. But, even with all that, I refuse to be cast into the void. Not necessarily out of any sense of misguided optimism, mind you—this team is a mess. It's just that I have to keep writing this thing for 13 more weeks, and if I go down that dark road now, I'll be a hollowed-out husk of a man by Thanksgiving. I don't want that, and (I hope) you don't want that. So, let's try to think about something happy. Seems like Ezekiel Ansah has been playing some pretty solid football lately. Let's check in on Detroit's favorite son of Ghana and see how he's doing.
Any discussion about Ziggy Ansah has to start with the obvious. He has always been, and continues to be, an absolute monster against the run. In 2014, he earned a +10.1 grade for his work in run defense, good for third among all Lions defenders, trailing only DeAndre Levy (+21.1) and Ndamukong Suh (+17.6). Furthermore, Ansah's 12.0 run stop percentage placed him second among 55 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends.
So far this season, Ansah has accumulated a +4.9 grade against the run. Given that Levy hasn't played a snap and Suh is no longer on the team, it probably doesn't surprise you to learn that Ansah currently grades out as the best run defender on the team. His ranking in run stop percentage has slipped a bit to eighth (out of 33) among 4-3 DEs, but that's still good enough to be in the top 25 percent. (In a cruel twist of fate, Cliff Avril—Cliff Avril!—currently ranks fifth.)
There's often some confusion (or even righteous indignation) about how PFF tabulates its scores, but in this case, Ansah's run grades match up exactly with what you see on tape. His combination of size and speed allows him to fend off blocks like they're gnats and track down running backs, often before they even break the line of scrimmage. He can crash inside hard on runs up the middle:
Or, if you prefer it the other way around, he can go from inside to out:
There just aren't many other ways to put it: Even without two of the best run defenders in the NFL playing with him, Ansah continues to snuff out rushing plays as well as he ever has. Trying to analyze his performance as pass rusher, though, makes things a little hazier.
Last season, Ansah graded out at +8.5 as a pass-rusher, behind only Suh, who clocked in at +15.3. (Reminder: Suh is really, really good at football.) Ansah also tallied 66 QB pressures and was ranked third out of 36 qualifying 4-3 DEs in PFF's pass rush productivity metric. However, unlike his run defense, Ansah's numbers as a pass-rusher have dropped precipitously from 2014. To date, he has compiled only six total pressures, and is currently ranked 22nd (out of 43) 4-3 DEs in pass rush productivity. His overall grade in that department currently stands at +0.1, which puts him right around the middle of the pack for Lions defenders. To be fair, some of this is due the volatility of small samples—Kyle Van Noy is a +0.9 in pass rush, due almost entirely to one play. Besides that, a primary factor involves how defensive lines create pressure in the first place.
An effective pass rush is like Hall and Oates—it consists of two powerful and complementary forces working together, producing a result greater than the sum of its parts. Interior pressure without anyone coming off the edge gives quarterbacks an avenue of escape from a crumbling pocket. Likewise, a good rush from the outside isn't much use if a passer can simply step up into the pocket to deliver a strike. One flows into the other, and last year, Ansah was a tributary for Suh, and vice-versa. A number of Ansah's sacks around the edge were assisted by Suh driving interior linemen back three yards off the snap.
Likewise, if Ansah got around the edge quicker than Suh could destroy a guard/center combo, quarterbacks often stepped up into the pocket to find it no longer existed.
While both these players' efforts fed into each other, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that it was an even split. Ansah is without a doubt a very good player; Suh is a transformative one. He emanates some sort of aura that turns lesser beings into greater versions of themselves (though maybe not in Miami). Ansah's pass-rushing numbers may be down this year, but remember our old friend George Johnson? Fresh off his new contract with Tampa Bay, he has accumulated one QB pressure this season and is ranked dead last in pass rush productivity among 4-3 DEs. And he has Gerald McCoy on his team!
Ansah's best asset has always been his ability to stop the run. It may very well always be his best asset. His successes in that area (along with the strengths of his teammates) have likely overshadowed the fact that to this point in his career, Ansah is at best an above-average pass-rusher. He rarely beats a left tackle cleanly enough to make a play on his own (unless it's Matt Kalil), and lacks that sort of signature move that defines premier sack-masters. Ansah's go-to seems to be his speed rush, and it's certainly his most effective, but without anything coming inside, that move is just as likely to run him out of a play. To compensate, he attempts to implement a bull rush somewhat frequently, which makes sense. You'd assume that a man possessing Ansah's size and speed would be a terror coming at you with a full head of steam:
That's pretty impressive! Unfortunately, it's a bit of an outlier. More often than not, his bull rush attempts look more like this:
Things haven't changed for Ansah all that much so far this season. As you might expect, both of his sacks were as much a result of interior pressure and hustle as anything else:
The problem here is two-fold. First, that interior pressure doesn't come with as much regularity as it did with Suh and Nick Fairley around, even though it's been a little better than you probably think. Haloti Ngata is currently the highest-graded pass-rusher on the team (+3.1) and Tyrunn Walker has been decent enough (+1.1). (Strangely, they've both graded out negatively against the run, making Ansah's skills all the more valuable.) Second, teams aren't letting the Lions' pass rush be that much of a factor. After the defense's solid start against San Diego, Philip Rivers adjusted by getting the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. The Denver Broncos did the same, and the Minnesota Vikings didn't really have to throw the ball at all to move the chains. Getting DeAndre Levy back would go a long way toward combating those trends.
Back to Ansah, though. With the losses on the defensive line this offseason, a lot of us had big hopes that Ansah would take the next step to elevate his game as a pass-rusher. He's not there yet. But, given the strides he's made in his first two-plus seasons, it's easy to forget that this is literally only Ansah's fifth year playing football. The nuances and techniques of outstanding pass-rushing take years to master, and it's still entirely possible he gets there with more time. But say he doesn't. In that case, you're left with an incredible run defender and a competent (at worst) pass-rusher. And that's still pretty damn good.