Lions’ Anthony Zettel is breaking out as one of the league’s top pass rushers

MINNEAPOLIS — Case Keenum lined up 3 yards from a tie ballgame. He thought he saw something in the Detroit Lions defense, and barked out an audible in the protection.

Turns out, Detroit fooled him.

The protection was the wrong one. And it left Anthony Zettel unaccounted for. You know, the guy who already had three sacks on the season. You know, the guy who already had pressured Keenum on nearly half his pass rushes. You know, the guy who already had recovered a fumble to help Detroit take a 14-7 lead in the first place. 

You know, the guy who has been, maybe, Detroit’s most important defensive player this season. He’s certainly been their most surprising.

Zettel is eating quarterbacks alive right now.

And when Keenum left him unblocked, he took his biggest bite yet.

“I was like, ‘Boy I hope he sees this doggone eat call right here,'” defensive end Cornelius Washington said in the locker room after the game. “The whole line just (moved out of the way), and I’m like, ‘Lord, Zettel, please just run.’ And he did.

“I gave him a little criticism when he came back to the sideline though. I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t know if you saw that or not, but, uh, you kind of took a roundabout way. If it was me, I’d just have been skinning his ass.’ But he made the play. Shoot, Zettel went a long way toward helping us to win the game today.”

Zettel’s sack set up a fourth-and-long, and facing a seven-point deficit with fewer than 3 minutes left, Minnesota had no choice but to go for it. Keenum’s desperation heave landed harmlessly in the back of the end zone, and the Lions escaped with the 14-7 win.

They’re now 3-1 on the season and sit atop the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers. 

For a team that has struggled offensively each of the last three weeks, it is the defense that has keyed the surge. And for a defense that hasn’t gotten a sack from Ezekiel Ansah in three of the first four weeks of the season, it is Zettel who has led the charge.

He already has four sacks and 18 quarterback pressures, both team highs. He’s been the league’s second-best pass rusher at his position, according to ProFootballFocus, and the 10th-best edge player overall. 

Kind of makes you wonder why Minnesota didn’t care to block him on the goal line.

“That was totally on me,” Keenum said. “I thought I saw something and got fooled. Changed the protection to the wrong protection. I got fooled. That is a huge play in the game, obviously, and that is one I want back.”

Zettel rose into the starting lineup because of the season-ending injury to Kerry Hyder, last year’s sack leader. Throw in the loss of Brandon Copeland and the suspensions to Armonty Bryant and Khyri Thornton, and there were a whole lot of questions facing this Lions defensive line heading into the season.

Instead, it has been the strength of the team.

“Everybody threw us under the bus at the beginning of the year because they don’t live the life we live,” Zettel said. “You guys aren’t in the locker room. You guys aren’t on the practice field with us. So I think you guys are slowly starting to realize we got a tough group and we play hard.”

Zettel was a sixth-round pick last year who made the transition from primarily an inside guy at Penn State to an outside guy in the pros. Viewed as a sort of tweener, it was unclear how exactly he’d fit into the defense. He finished with one sack in a nondescript rookie season.

But then he spent his offseason in Pittsburgh, working on his get-off with other NFL players and trying to expand his portfolio of pass rushes. And when he returned to Detroit for the offseason program, it didn’t take long for teammates and coaches to notice the difference.

Perhaps nobody generated more buzz as a possible breakout player than Zettel. And through four games, he has delivered. Violently. 

“Anthony is freaking balling right now,” Washington said. “Shoot, as long as we keep winning games, and he keeps doing his thing, we’re going to be A-OK.”

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