Silent star: Detroit Lions rookie Ziggy Ansah lets his play — and others — do the talking
Jose Juarez, ASSOCIATED PRESS
DETROIT — So you think Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah is fast on the football field?
That’s nothing compared to how fast the rookie defensive end, and BYU product, moves in the locker room after a game.
The Detroit Lions had just lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-21, on Nov. 24 in a contest that saw Ansah, who had been sidelined the previous two games due to an ankle injury, record two quarterback sacks and re-energize the Lions defense in his return to action.
After the game, reporters were ushered into the solemn locker room in the bowels of Ford Field to conduct interviews.
While star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh held court with the media, talking about the disappointing defeat, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Ansah strode from the showers to his spot in the locker room, about 10 feet away from Suh’s locker, and turned his back to get dressed.
Having traveled a long way to interview Ziggy, I patiently and respectfully waited for him to put on his clothes. I was looking forward to reconnecting with him — I hadn't talked to him since the night of the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall last April in New York City, where he was picked No. 5 overall.
I had flown from Chicago to Detroit and taken a cab straight from the airport to Ford Field to watch him play, the day after covering the BYU-Notre Dame football game.
After listening briefly to Suh’s postgame comments, I turned around, only to see a fully clothed Ansah bolting back into the bathroom and showers area.
I panicked momentarily, then waited for Ansah to return to his locker. And waited. And waited.
“Is there another exit back there?” I asked a locker room attendant folding up the chair in front of Ansah’s locker.
“Do you think Ziggy will come back?”
The man looked at me as if he had been asked if it would be wise to walk the Motor City streets at night alone.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” he said. “He doesn’t stick around long after games.”
That was Ziggy being Ziggy — displaying, once again, his speed and elusiveness, and outsmarting his opponent. He had blown past the cadre of reporters like he had the Buccaneers' left tackle an hour earlier.
The Lions media relations staff, and reporters that cover the team on a daily basis, weren’t surprised at all about Ansah’s quick departure — especially after an unsettling loss.
Besides, Ansah, who may not have been aware that I wanted to interview him that day, has never been one to talk much about himself anyway, dating back to last season, when he became a sudden sensation as a senior at BYU.
On top of that, the culture of the Lions organization dictates that younger players talk as little as possible to the media.
“He’s really, really generic during interviews,” Justin Rogers, who covers the Lions for MLive Media Group, said of Ansah. “He’s learned a remarkable number of football clichés in his short time around the game. You can tell when the microphones are shut off, he’s got a good personality. I would say Ansah’s an impressionable guy. He respects and listens to his coaches. When he was injured, he straight-up avoided us and declined all interviews.”
Added Rogers: “I’ve joked with him off the record. He’s got a pretty quick wit. Every time he makes a joke, I realize his grasp of the English language is a little better than I want to give him credit for. Every time he says he doesn’t understand me, I’m pretty sure he does; he just doesn’t want to talk.”
Apparently, Ansah, who leads all NFL rookies with seven sacks this season, is happy to let his play — and others — do the talking for him.
After that tough loss to Tampa Bay, Suh fielded tough questions from reporters. But Suh’s face broke into a smile when I asked him about Ansah.
“Ziggy’s a great guy. I’ve gotten to know him really well,” Suh told me. “He’s very athletic, with a lot of raw talent. We saw it from the very beginning. The biggest thing with him is that he needs to get more and more experience. He’ll definitely be one of the top defensive linemen in this league. He’s a first-rounder for a reason. He’s not a bust. You’ve got to respect him.”
“He’s got a lot of upside to him,” said Lions rookie defensive end Devin Taylor, a fourth-round pick out of South Carolina. “We’re glad to have him out there. It was great to see him jump right back into the rotation and be effective and productive. He really came through for us today on a couple plays. You can’t ask for anything more from him.”
After Ansah had seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in a Week 3 victory against quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins, Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham offered effusive praise for his rookie defensive end.
"He reminds me of some of the great players I’ve seen,” Cunningham said. “With Ziggy, you really don’t notice it until you look at the tapes how many plays he’s made that are almost the side of impossible People said he didn’t have football instincts. Well, I guess if you grow up in Africa you get some instincts. I don’t know what he has, but he finds the ball really quickly."
Cunningham projects Ansah to be a player that will be productive in the league for a long time.
“His future is bright,” Cunningham said. “Ziggy stays within himself. He’s not a showboat. There’s a lot of blessings when it comes to him.”
The Lions currently own a 7-6 record and lead the NFC North. With a strong finish, Detroit is poised to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. The Lions have advanced to the playoffs only twice since 1999.
On Sunday, during Detroit's 34-20 loss to Philadelphia in a blizzard, Ansah played just 23 snaps — he was credited with three tackles, including one for a loss — before leaving the game in the second half with a shoulder injury. Lions coach Jim Schwartz said it didn't appear to be a "long-term" injury, "but we'll have to see."
Die-hard Detroit fans know who Ziggy is, and are generally aware of his backstory. They know about the Ghanaian’s meteoric rise, from someone who didn’t know anything about football just a few years ago to a first-round, top-5 pick.
Rogers calls Ansah “a natural in a lot of ways. Cunningham appreciates the fact Ansah didn’t have a football background because he feels like he was a blank slate and didn’t have to unteach him bad habits.”
Throughout his rookie season, Ansah has faced numerous Pro Bowl offensive left tackles, like D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Matt Kalil and Trent Williams. But because of his limited background in football, Ansah is blissfully oblivious to the résumés of the players he faces, according to his teammates and coaches. He just lines up, and plays hard.
The coaching staff marvels at one particular play Ansah made against Arizona that showed his remarkable physical gifts. The Cardinals tried running the ball to Ansah’s side, and pulled the guard and the fullback that way. Ziggy bull-rushed the guard, then tossed the fullback aside with ease to make the tackle for a 1-yard gain.
Just as impressive was his return from an ankle injury against Tampa Bay.
“Their pass rush had been anemic the last couple of weeks, and he walks in and gets a couple of sacks,” Rogers said. “He’s really their best pass-rushing defensive end as a rookie. I think his adjustment has gone very well, and better than expected given the struggles that many college defensive ends face when they transition to the pros. When he first came in, I think he was a little overwhelmed with the amount of work required in an NFL practice. You saw times when he looked winded out there. But he’s gotten over that and has adjusted pretty well.”
In Detroit’s nationally televised 40-10 rout of Green Bay on Thanksgiving — the Lions’ first victory on Thanksgiving in 10 years — Ansah picked up two more sacks. It may have been his best game as a pro.
“Ziggy Ansah looked like a Venus fly trap,” wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Seidel. “The Packers were moving the ball on their first possession, out from deep in their own territory. And then Ansah came rushing upfield and swallowed (quarterback Matt) Flynn for his third sack in two weeks. Later, he got another.”
With those impressive back-to-back performances against Tampa Bay and Green Bay, Ansah jumped back into contention for rookie player of the year and the all-rookie team honors.
Ansah’s impact has been felt in other aspects of Detroit’s defense as well. Coming into this season, the Lions were one of the worst teams in the NFL in run defense.
“They got bigger at the defensive end position, and suddenly they’re third-best in the NFL in run defense,” Rogers said. “Their rush defense has been outstanding, and Ansah’s been a part of that, for sure.”
That was before Sunday, however, when Lions allowed Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to run for 217 yards.
While Ansah’s transition on the field has been relatively smooth, what about off the field?
Suh, the former Nebraska star and 2010 rookie of the year, has known his share of controversy in the NFL. He was drawn to Ansah immediately. When the Lions selected Ansah No. 5 overall last April, Suh, whose father is from Cameroon, tweeted: "From Ghana to Detroit, welcome my African brother! Lets do work!"
Like any rookie, Ziggy needed some time to become acclimated to the team, and to the NFL lifestyle.
“He’s definitely comfortable now,” Suh said. “He was a little wary, as anybody would, at first. You’ve got to know your guys. We have a really tight-knit group. He enjoys himself. He’s comfortable with everybody.”
Asked if he has taken Ziggy under his wing, Suh replied, “I think everybody has. I don’t think we have one particular person that is a leader or anyone in particular who has taken him under their wing. He’s friends with everybody on the D-line. We all hang out. That’s what it all comes down to, just having that good bond. That’s how you’re going to be good as a defensive line.”
Those that cover the team say they’ve witnessed a transformation of sorts with the Lions D-line, which lost two starters from last season.
“What I’ve seen from his teammates is a willingness to take Ansah under their wing,” Rogers said. “He’s fit in very well with that group. It’s a very diverse group in terms of personality. Suh being kind of a cerebral, almost loner before this season, has really taken on to mentoring Ansah. Early in the offseason, Ansah said Suh was like a big brother to him. He has pretty much pledged his support to whatever he needs, whether it’s figuring out where to live in Detroit or coaching up Ansah as a player.
"For some reason, he’s really clicked with (defensive end) Willie Young. It’s an odd pairing. Willie’s a very rambunctious guy, a big personality, a big talker. He’s uses a lot of goofy slang. Those two have gotten along really well. The coaches really like Ansah because he’s all business. You wouldn’t think the love of football is bred in him, but he seems to take a lot of pride in his profession and he works very hard at it.”
Ansah is a member of a star-studded team that includes Suh, quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson (nicknamed “Megatron”) and running back Reggie Bush.
Ziggy is content to be a relatively anonymous role player, out of the glare of the bright spotlight.
“He hasn’t had to be 'The Guy,'” Rogers said.
During the offseason, Ansah attended some of the team’s charity events, including a football clinic for kids. He went on a fishing outing with the team.
“The fans are excited about him,” Rogers said. “They saw what he did in the NFL combine, and they know their gifts are immense. They’re just waiting for his potential to be actualized.”
The Lions have been infamous for high-profile draft busts — Andre Ware, Joey Harrington and Mike Williams come to mind. Detroit fans were a little skeptical of the Lions choosing Ansah with the No. 5 pick, but realized that he was a high-risk, high-reward selection. Plus, he filled a huge need at the defensive end position. So far, the pick is paying dividends.
After the Lions-Buccaneers game, I left Ford Field and forged into the dark, cold Detroit night, disappointed that I hadn't been able to talk to Ziggy.
A cab driver, who hails from Mauritania — a West African country like Ghana — was listening to the Lions postgame show on the radio. When asked about Ansah, he expressed his African pride. “He’s a good player,” he told me. “I like watching him.”
Another cabbie, Tony, has been driving a taxi in Detroit for 40 years and has seen the Lions go through a lot of dismal times during those four decades. He is both a fan of Ziggy, and optimistic about the future.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” Tony said of Ansah. “He and Suh give the Lions two great defensive linemen. If the Lions get another like guy like Ziggy, we’ll go to the Super Bowl. We’re just one player away.”
Detroit is one of only four NFL teams that has never played in the Super Bowl.
If the Lions do end up in there in the next few seasons, you can bet that Ziggy Ansah will have played a role in that achievement. And with a little luck, maybe he’ll stick around long enough in the locker room to talk to reporters like me about it.
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