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Film breakdown: What happened during Ziggy's sacks? (Part one)

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Recent debate over Ezekiel Ansah's pass rushing ability led us to go back to the tape. Can some of his sacks also teach us a little about how Detroit uses fronts and stunts to bring pressure?

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Top 101 Players Not Named Ansah

Last week, Pro Football Focus released its list of Top 101 NFL players from the 2015 season. Although Darius Slay made the list at #44, a curious omission was Ezekiel Ansah. I don't know that I can capture the befuddlement this caused any better than Jeremy Reisman did:

Now it's unfair to simply point at Ansah's sack numbers as the only bit of evidence as to why he deserved a spot on the list. That's why it's important to note he also had four forced fumbles (second-most in the league), 15 tackles for loss (12th-most), and did it all with a rag-tag group of backups alongside him on the defensive line for most of the year.

On top of that, Alex Reno enjoys reminding us from time to time that Ziggy also happens to be an elite run defender for his position. Here's a quote from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin by way of Paula Pasche at The Oakland Press:

Well, I think you watch, he is a physical guy in the run game, so he allows us to set an edge. Wherever he is, on his side, the edge is usually set and it’s set and it’s not moving

It's not just talk, and it's not just Detroit-affiliated people saying it. In fact, even PFF agreed on this point. Christopher Tomke had a nice article in October 2015 highlighting Ziggy's play against the run using PFF scores:

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.

Ziggy happens to be a complete player who does many things well in addition to pass rushing. But the explanation provided by PFF for leaving the player with the third-most sacks in the league off their 2015 list zeroed in on those sacks, so that's what we're going to talk about today:

Of his 14 sacks, six of them were clean-up plays, and another three of them were entirely unblocked. Olivier Vernon managed 57 total pressures in the final eight games of the season alone, so Ansah’s 66 over 16 games isn’t that impressive for an edge rusher, and in grading terms, there were 20 edge rushers with a higher grade thanks largely to the kind of pressure they were applying. Sacks are important, but they are not a good measure of pass-rush.

We agree there is more to being a defensive end than countable stats like credited sacks, and all the other stuff that actually makes Ziggy look even better as a player. But there is something to be said about consistency. For example, is it enough for a player to have a hot streak of eight games to close out the season, possibly for a team "coasting to the end of the season" after a bunch of coaches were fired? Does it matter if that player's stats possibly benefit from playing with one of the all-time greats at a position in their unit? Is it okay if a guy was "practically unstoppable over the second half of the season, but the first half was just reasonable?"

In spite of a historic eight game stretch to finish the year with great production, Matthew Stafford was not ranked No. 21 on the list. I am pretty glad the Lions didn't decide to move on from Stafford, but let's get back to Ezekiel Ansah's sacks.

Taking Stock

PFF stated they had their own measure of when a sack counted for a player, asserting that Ziggy really only deserved 14.0 sacks. I don't know what their exact rules or reasons for doing this were -- instead, we'll go with the 14.5 sacks that the official league stats assigned to Ziggy and look at them all. Here they are:

Sack Number Week Opponent Quarter Notes
1 1 at SDO 2 Possibly one of PFF's Clean-up sacks
2 2 at MIN 2
3 4 at SEA 2 Possibly one of PFF's Unblocked sacks
4 4 at SEA 4 Definitely one of PFF's Unblocked sacks
5 5 ARI 1 Possibly one of PFF's Unblocked sacks
6 7 MIN 2 Definitely one of PFF's Clean-up sacks, half credit probably revoked here
7 8 at KCY 2 Possibly one of PFF's Clean-up sacks
8 11 OAK 2
9 12 PHI 1
10 12 PHI 2
11 12 PHI 3
11.5 12 PHI 4 Definitely one of PFF's Clean-up sacks, officially half credit with Taylor
12.5 13 GBY 4 Definitely one of PFF's Unblocked sacks
13.5 14 at STL 2
14.5 17 at CHI 2

ZiggySacks from the first 8 games

Sack 1: Week 1 2015 at SDO, 2Q (11:54). Second-and-7 at the San Diego 23.

Ziggy is outside 77 LT King Dunlap, who he engages before working the corner. As 17 QB Philip Rivers struggles to find anyone open, Ziggy closes the pincer with 98 DE Devin Taylor from the frontside. I certainly don't consider this to be a "clean-up" sack, but would not be surprised if some believe Taylor had the play and Ziggy was just getting credit.

When looking at the play, I thought Rivers didn't need to attempt to slide right without Ziggy winning around Dunlap (assisted a little by inside pressure from Ngata). Therefore, Ziggy really does drive the sack here.

Sack 2: Week 2 at MIN, 2Q (3:22). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 8.

Detroit sends a four man pass rush out of the 5-2 playbook: 52 DE Darryl Tapp, 99 DT Jermelle Cudjo, and 92 DT Haloti Ngata all angle stunt to one side while Ziggy gets an isolation on the other side. 5 QB Teddy Bridgewater finds nobody open but has a huge hole to his right between the angle stunters and Ziggy's straight upfield rush.

Teddy goes for the hole and almost makes it through. Ngata gets a paw out, but misses. It's Ziggy, spinning back inside off his man, that finishes the play for a 2-yard loss. Without his move to get free, the quarterback is off and running for the goal line.

Sack 3: Week 4 at SEA, 2Q (2:00). First-and-goal at the Detroit 9.

Not much to do here except admire Ziggy's athleticism. Seattle fakes 34 Thomas Rawls on outside zone to the right while dragging 15 WR Jermaine Kearse back behind the formation for a bootleg-style play-action pass.

57 LB Josh Bynes reads the play perfectly and sticks to Kearse in coverage, leaving 3 QB Russell Wilson with few options. Ziggy recovers off the run action block from 88 TE Jimmy Graham and brings Wilson down for a huge loss. I suspect this was one of the sacks credited to Ziggy that PFF considered "unblocked," but that's a mischaracterization of what was really going on: Ziggy read the play fake and ran down Wilson in the open field.

Sack 4: Week 4 at SEA, 4Q (13:36). Second-and-9 at the Detroit 36.

The full video for this play is available on the official Detroit Lions site, so I recommend watching it in full. When you get to the instant replay part of the video, pay attention to what Jon Gruden says - Wilson runs zone read and decides to keep the ball instead of handing off to Rawls.

I am pretty sure the PFF scoring has this as an unblocked sack because it is. The thing is, that's the way zone read option is supposed to work. As Gruden points out, Wilson read it wrong and should have handed the ball off to Rawls. In any case, the play was actually a run play that may or may not have had a play action component, and showcases Ziggy's absurd speed. He gets to Wilson so fast there is no time for Wilson to go into ball-carrier mode and turn on the jets.

Sack 5: Week 5 ARI, 1Q (6:45). Third-and-4 at the Arizona 45.

Against an empty gun look from the Cardinals, the Lions run a T-E stunt between 91 DE Jason Jones and Ziggy. The concept is explained in a wonderfully detailed and accessible manner in a video from the Philadelphia Eagles, which I recommend watching -- Anatomy of a Play: T-E Stunt.

Coming back to the ZiggySack at hand, we see the Lions are in a strange overloaded formation with everyone shifted to one side and Taylor off by himself wide-nine alignment. Since the Cardinals are releasing 85 TE Darren Fells into the pattern, the protection responsibilities are as follows: 68 LT Jared Veldheer picks up the outermost rusher (Ziggy) and 76 LG Mike Iupati takes the next man to the inside (Jones). 63 C Lyle Sendlein has to pick up the next man to the inside after that (Reid). On the back side, 70 RT Bobby Massie has the outermost rusher (Taylor) while 61 RG Jonathan Cooper is uncovered and has no man to account for. Therefore, Cooper reads and assists either Massie or Sendlein at his discretion.

At the snap, Reid widens the T-E stunt lane by angle-stunting toward Taylor on the back side. Sendlein's initial lateral step was left into the T-E lane, but Reid successfully drags him out. Jones attacks inside Veldheer hard, getting Iupati to commit. Turning upfield, Jones runs the pile into Veldheer, who had also lateral stepped to his left in anticipation of taking Ziggy to the outside.

Ziggy loops it back behind Jones and Iupati, charging up the gut past a desperate attempt by Iupati to turn back around in time. Facing an unblocked speed rusher up the middle, 3 QB Carson Palmer has no chance and goes down for an 8-yard sack to bring on the punt team. Again, Ziggy is unblocked but not because the offensive line screwed up. This is just good execution along the defensive line by Ziggy and Jones on a designed stunt.

Sack 6: Week 7 MIN, 2Q (0:21). Third-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

Facing third-and-long, Minnesota empties the backfield to see if they can keep from settling for a field goal before halftime. Teryl Austin dials up a funky variation on the T-E stunt we saw above. This time, you might say it's a B-E stunt with 59 Tahir Whitehead and Taylor. Instead of a defensive tackle running the interference penetration at the blocker pile, now we have Tahir Whitehead doing the same thing from a linebacker spot. As before, Taylor loops around into what should be an empty interior rush lane to Teddy.

The call works even better than anticipated. Taylor gets the free rush lane as designed, but Ngata beats his man 63 LG Brandon Fusco and Ziggy also beats 75 LT Matt Kalil around the corner. Teddy has no chance here, and all three arrive pretty much at the same time. I believe this is the most likely candidate for where PFF took away the half sack from Ziggy's officially credited 14.5 total. In the official stats, Ziggy gets a full sack because he actually stripped the ball from Teddy (recovered by 68 RT TJ Clemmings for the Vikings). However, I can buy giving Ziggy "real" credit for only a joint sack because the big hits taking Teddy down on the play were actually the ones delivered by Taylor and Ngata.

Sack 7: Week 8 at KCY (London), 2Q (0:52). First-and-10 at the Kansas City 21.

This one is another misclassified play that is recorded as a sack, but is really not that interesting to look at. Essentially, the Chiefs tried to run a screen pass, but Ngata had the running back covered deep in the backfield. Instead of throwing the ball, 11 QB Alex Smith tucked the ball and slid for a relatively safe loss of yardage. Already up 24-3 going into halftime, there was no reason for the Chiefs to take chances so he ate the ball.

Ziggy just happened to be the first Detroit player to touch Smith on the ground, technically picking up credit for the "sack."

Next time: Weeks 10 through 17

More strip sacks, more stunts, and more Ziggy taking down quarterbacks. We'll also add some general observations on Ziggy's sacks as a whole that (to our knowledge) have not been discussed.