ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The general impression of Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah when the Detroit Lions selected him with the No. 5 pick overall last spring was that he was incredibly athletic but probably too raw and needed time to develop.
Some called him a “hit or miss” prospect largely because there were unknown factors based on his limited football experience while growing up in Africa and playing only three years in college at Brigham Young.
The Lions had a different perspective at the time and they are being rewarded these days for taking a shot on the 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive end with rare athleticism for someone his size.
“The book on him was that he was an inexperienced player and it was going to take time,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whose staff coached Ansah’s team at the Senior Bowl last January. “I don’t know how many of those people had exposure to him at the Senior Bowl or really watched film. Maybe they saw a highlight or heard somebody on TV say something.
“Our experience with him was different. He was a fast learner. He was naturally instinctive for the game. It really hasn’t surprised us. I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can do.”
After missing two games with a sprained ankle, Ansah appears to be fresh at a time when many rookies could be hitting the wall. He’s broken out with two sacks in each of the last two games.
Ansah now ranks tied for 22nd in the league – first among rookies – with seven sacks entering Sunday’s game at Philadelphia.
At the very least, he has joined the conversation for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
“I don’t really pay much attention to that,” Ansah said. “It would be fun to win it, but that’s not my main focus right now. I’m just doing whatever I can just to help my team win. I just want to make plays on the field. If I’m Rookie of the Year, that’s great.”
More than likely, Ansah still has a lot of ground to make up on other top candidates for the award such as:
— Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso, a second-round draft pick, ranks second in the NFL with 125 tackles.
— New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, the 13th pick overall, has 64 combined tackles, 3 ½ sacks, 11 tackles for loss and six quarterback hits.
— Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu, a third-round selection, is ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the league by ProFootballFocus.com.
Since the award’s inception 46 years ago, the Lions have had three players win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh won in 2010, defensive end Bubba Baker in 1978 and cornerback Lem Barney in 1967.
Suh has been impressed by the Lions’ latest rookie sensation.
“He’s been effective without question,” Suh said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. Make plays.
“He’s been doing a lot of intangible things, dominating against the guys he’s going against. That’s what we expect out of him.”
Despite the perception that he would probably have difficulty adjusting to the NFL because of his background, Ansah has made a quick transition.
“He’s a difference-maker when he’s on the field,” Schwartz said. “He just has those instincts. He’s around the football and he’s very comfortable in our defensive scheme.
He’s hard to handle in the run game and he’s also done a good job in our blitz packages.”
Suh added: “I don’t think a lack of experience is ever going to affect him. It’s just the growth spurt that he has to encounter. I think he’s handled it pretty well.”
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and defensive-line coaches Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn clearly did a good job getting Ansah on the fast track.
Ansah said he’s also gotten a lot of help with the transition from the veterans on the team’s defensive line.
“When I have any questions on the field, I go to Willie (Young) because we both play ends,” Ansah said. “When it comes to like health-wise, I go to Suh or Israel (Idonije) because they’ve been in the league for a long time and they know how to take care of their body. It just depends what I need help with. They’ve made it real easy for me.”
Ansah overcame a concussion suffered in practice that forced him to miss 11 days during a valuable developmental period for rookies in training camp. His ankle injury became another obstacle for him at midseason.
Both times, however, Ansah returned better than ever.
“Hard work pays off,” he said. “I’ve come a long way. Anything I can do to be the best I can be, I will do.”
EXTRA POINTS — The NFL announced Wednesday that the Lions’ game next season against Atlanta in London, England will begin at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time on October 26. It will give the league four separate time slots that day.
— Suh, on getting fined by the league for a throat-slash gesture in the Tampa Bay game: “It wasn’t a planned thing. It is what it is. I can’t do anything about it. Move forward.”
— Schwartz wouldn’t confirm nor deny a report that receiver Calvin Johnson has been getting his knee drained to be available for games, but he did say:
“I don’t know if that’s unusual for players in the NFL. There’s a lot of players who have stuff like that, that’s required to get them to game day.”
— Schwartz, on Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s $100,000 fine for being on the field and getting in the way of an opponent’s kick return:
“There was one time last year, I was actually out of the way, but leaning over, looking at a play, and an official was back-peddling and caught me in the nose with an elbow. I wasn’t even in the way, but it just shows. That didn’t feel good. There were probably some other people who wish they had that elbow.”
— Running back Reggie Bush, who sat out Wednesday’s practice to rest his body, on whether he was clutching a football while watching in response to his three fumbles in the last five games:
“Yeah it is. Just trying to get an edge, find any little bit of time where I can just constantly remind myself and making sure I’m correcting my mistakes. I’m doing everything I can to make sure when my number’s called on Sundays that I’m not turning the ball over.”