FRISCO, Texas – Having watched the film of the Lions, here are my weekly scouting reports on three guys I've got my eye on as we move toward this Monday Night Football matchup.
As usual, you've certainly heard of one of them in Dallas native and No. 1 overall pick Matt Stafford. But there's more to this Detroit team than just its quarterback. Particularly on defense, we're going to take a look at what this Cowboys offense can expect to see across the line.
Here we go:
Weapon:QB Matthew Stafford
Stafford has always been a competitive player. He shows physical and mental toughness, evidenced by the fact that he's playing with a busted finger on his throwing hand right now.
This is a guy who is willing to stand in there and take a hit. There were plenty of snaps where he had to deal with protection problems and he was able to bounce back. His outstanding arm talent and strength are what helped him get drafted No. 1 overall. But he also has a quick, compact throwing motion. The ball comes off his hand nicely, even when footwork is not at his best. He will use all kinds of arm angles to deliver the ball. You will see him drop down to fit the ball underneath the rusher – almost like a shortstop. He has touch for screens and the flat. He doesn't make his receivers work for the ball. He's got the accuracy to hit his man on the move, and it shows when he throws the slant or those in-breaking routes. He can also lay the ball there on the deep route.
Stafford makes those throws that make you say "Wow." It's almost like he is dropping it down in a basket. He has nice accuracy both inside and outside the numbers, and he can deliver that way from the left or right hash across the field. That said, he is a much better player when he can throw from the pocket. His mistakes tend to happen once he decides to go on the move.
He shows the poise to get rid of it if things break down. There are plenty of over throws and screens in the ground if play is not there. He has good anticipation and timing on his throws. Watching the tape, you ask some questions about whether his vision is sharp -- because of the throws that he makes in tight windows. But his team rallies around him. They find ways to make plays for him.
There are no questions about his toughness, as this season is just the latest example of him playing hurt. His pocket mechanics can be all over the place. He will set his feet one time, then the next be throwing in full retreat. He is at his best when he can go forward as opposed to laterally. Doesn't have great speed or quickness in the pocket but moves well enough in the pocket to give a defense problems. He has a history of having problems in the pocket with ball security, but not in the film I studied this season.
For all the focus on Calvin Johnson, he has made do without him this season.
Nemesis:DE Ziggy Ansah
Long, rangy build. Was a high risk-reward player coming out of college. Given his lack of experience playing football, the production was not great -- but there was no doubt the talent was there. The Lions took a chance and it has paid off big.
Surprisingly for an inexperienced player, Ansah's learning curve was very small. He was an impact player from the word "Go." He uses his length to extend and control the blocker, and he is quick to get off and find the ball. Because of this, he sees his share of double teams. He lines up on both the left and right sides, which makes him valuable as more than just a pass rusher. He can really run from the backside, so you have to account for him in the running game for this reason alone.
He will take on the trap block with power and disengage. But he can also capture the corner as an edge rusher. He will spin to free himself on the pass rush, and he hits with a pop when tackling.
We all know how powerful Tyron Smith is, but Ansah can knock the blocker back with power of his own. Because of this, he is a terrifying one-on-one matchup for a tight end. He is relentless to find the ball, and he can get up the field quickly, then retrace his steps to get back in on the play. It's hard to run the ball around him – he has some Olivier Vernon in him for this reason.
Ansah knows how to play down the line and finish the play. He can split those double teams. He doesn't always come at the same angle, as he has a wide variety of moves. Another thing to watch with this Cowboys front – Ansah knows how to force blockers into penalties.
He is always slapping at the ball trying to create turnovers in the pocket. He will get knocked off balance at times, but the majority of his snaps, he plays on his feet. He has the ability to control a game with his pass rush and has to be accounted for each and every play.
He had a sack in his only playoff game against the Cowboys in 2014. This year he hasn't had the sack numbers of previous seasons, but he will be a tough matchup for Tyron Smith and Doug Free this week due to his overall playing ability.
Under the Radar:DE Anthony Zettel
Much like Anthony Brown of the Cowboys, Zettel is one of those late round defensive players that the club hit on. He has been super-productive in the rotation for the Lions.
He is a tough, hard-nosed effort player that lacks the elite skill. He was the same way in college at Penn State, but you can see by his play that he loves the game. He shows both physical and mental toughness, and his effort makes up for a lack of quickness and playing speed. Zettel is going to outwork a blocker before he gets by him with skill.
His pursuit speed is good, not great – but he will surprise you with how many plays he gets in on. He has better body control and balance in the NFL than college, and he is not on the ground nearly as much. In college, he had trouble holding the point of attack – but he's not as bad now. Part of the reasoning is that he has done a better job of playing with his hands and disengaging off blocks.
Just in general, he is more consistent with his technique – likely a result of reps. He plays with range, and he uses his instincts against both run and pass. He is disciplined in his approach – not often that you see him fooled or out of position.
At this point in his career, he doesn't have many pass rush moves -- but it's not for lack of effort. The Lions line him up on both sides, but he is a much better left end than right due to his ability to hang in there and play blocks. He has that ability to make a sneaky play when you're not expecting it.
Bottom line, he's a better player overall now than while in college. This is one of those players that gives you everything he has each snap he's on the field.