By: Will Burchfield
Ziggy Ansah smiled when asked on Friday if he feels up to game speed.
“Yeah, yeah. They’re ain’t no slowing down here,” he said.
Aside from that, the playful Ansah didn’t show much emotion. He didn’t let on, one way or another, how confident he is heading into Sunday’s season-opener with just four practices under his belt.
The big defensive end missed all of training camp and preseason with a leg injury. An ankle injury last year limited him to 13 games and just two sacks.
So, how does he feel?
“I feel okay,” Ansah said.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been on the field obviously, and, yeah, there will be some rust to shake off. But I just come every day to work as hard as I can and be the best I can be.”
The benefit — if there is one — to missing the team’s preseason program is that Ansah will enter the 2017 season with fresh legs. But there’s two sides to that coin.
“Obviously I wasn’t as beat as some of the other guys, but then again there’s certain things that I have to perfect because they were working on their craft while I was taking care of my business,” he said. “It’s like half and half.”
The Lions desperately need Ansah to rediscover his 2015 form, when he led the way on the defensive line with 14.5 sacks. With Kerry Hyder out for the year, Devin Taylor gone and Armonty Bryant suspended for the first four games, questions abound as to where the team’s pass rush will come from.
“Obviously we’ve lost some great talent on the D-line and no one person in the room can make up for that loss. We have to come together and execute and work toward filling in that blank spot,” Ansah said. “But for me, it’s not pressure. I just gotta take it personally and help my D-line and my team do what we do best.”
Ansah returned to practice on Monday. Jim Caldwell said on Wednesday “there’s certainly a possibility” that Ansah could be on a snap count versus the Cardinals.
“There’s no question about it. I think with everybody we kind of look at them and try to determine how we can best utilize what they’re able to give us. But have we determined that yet? No, we have not,” Caldwell said. “We’re waiting to see where he is at the end of the week.”
Ansah said it’s “coach’s decision” as to whether or not he’ll be held in check on Sunday. Asked if he could handle a full load, he replied, “Oh yeah.”
No one is more important to the Lions’ defensive line than Ansah. In one-on-one matchups, he’s almost impossible to contain. When he draws double teams, he opens up opportunities for those around him.
“There are only a few guys that have the kind of explosion, power, size that he has. We don’t have a lot of guys on our team genetically built the way he’s constructed,” Caldwell said. “He can create some problems. He forces teams maybe to look at it a little bit different way in terms of how they pass protect when he’s on the field.”
All of that’s true when Ansah’s healthy. Sunday will provide a good glimpse into how far he’s come since last season.
Until then, no one — Ansah included — seems entirely sure what to expect.
“He’s going to have a little rust like they all do when they come back a little bit, but I think he’ll be fine,” said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. “He’s played a lot of snaps for us, he knows our system very well. It’s going to be the speed of the game and getting caught back up that way, and I think he’ll adjust fine.”
Either way, Austin won’t read too much into Ansah’s performance on Sunday. He’s more concerned about the long haul.
“I’m not really worried about him per se, because our deal is this week is one game,” Austin said. “Our deal is to make sure he’s ready for the season and that he continues to grow and get better as the season goes on.”
Ansah declined to comment on any injury-related questions, including whether the knee was related to the ankle and why it took him so long to get back on the field.
“I think you’re going to have to tackle that with head coach. It’s his decision and the medical staff for me to be on or off the field,” Ansah said.