One of the biggest concerns going into the season for the Detroit Lions was their clear lack of defensive ends. Once Kerry Hyder was lost for the year during the preseason, the depth at edge rushers went from bad to worse. The situation looked so bleak, as Detroit went into Week 1 with two undrafted defensive end rookies on their final 53-man roster.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the Lions’ defensive line hasn’t exactly stricken fear in their opponents. They rank a modest 11th in sacks through three games (8) and have occasionally given quarterbacks like Matt Ryan too much time to dissect their secondary.
However, looks can be deceiving. ESPN curated a list of every team’s secret weapon (insider required), and their pick for the Lions was their attack from left-side edge rushers. Here’s part of their explanation:
The trio of Anthony Zettel, Cornelius Washington and Jeremiah Valoaga has thus far racked up 19 total pressures on 100 rushes from the left edge. All three rank among the top 20 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity from the left side.
I’ll give you a second to take that in. Anthony Zettel (2016 sixth-round pick), Cornelius Washington (free agent pickup) and Jeremiah Valoaga (UDFA) all rank in the top 20 in pass-rush productivity.
Zettel, specifically, has been a standout player on the Lions’ defense. According to Pro Football Focus, Zettel generated five pressures in Week 1 alone and added another three last Sunday. As of Sunday night, Zettel ranked 10th among all 4-3 edge rushers with an 84.9 PFF grade.
This has been a consistent pattern for the Detroit Lions. They have seemingly made star players out of no-names on the left side. They made the likes of Kerry Hyder, Jason Jones, George Johnson and Devin Taylor look like potential Pro Bowlers in the past five years.
So truly the Lions’ secret weapon isn’t Anthony Zettel or Jeremiah Valoaga. Detroit’s secret weapon is defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. He has had a knack for turning developmental players into pass rush specialists. His mastery is only proven by the fact that once these players leave Detroit, their careers seem to fade away.
Jason Jones had 9.5 sacks in two years with the Lions, and could only muster 3.5 with the Dolphins the following year. George Johnson had 6.0 sacks in 2014, his sole season with Detroit. He has yet to record a sack since. Devin Taylor had 11.5 sacks over the past two years in Detroit. The Giants released him during their 53-man cut down this year.
So while Ezekiel Ansah is continuing to battle through some injuries, Kocurek is keeping the Lions’ defensive line above water by turning a lower-end roster into one of the most pass-rushing productive units in the league. He is truly Detroit’s secret weapon.