The Notebook: Ziggy Ansah, Brian Orakpo & praise for pass rush producers

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Retired defensive end Stephen White returns with his Notebook from Week 13, examining a host of pass rushers -- young and old, on the inside and outside -- who are causing trouble this year.

I was high on Lions rookie defensive end Ezekiel Ansah after watching him at the Senior Bowl and going back and watching some of his college tape at BYU. He is tall, long, fast, quick off the ball and wayyy stronger than you think. His arms are ridiculously long at 35 and 1/8 inches and that can be a weapon for a guy who learns how to use his hands well to keep blockers off of him.

I figured if he went to a team that could teach him moves, eventually he would be an offensive tackle's worst nightmare. After his last two games, the future might well be now for Ansah.

It's not just that he has two sacks in each of his last two games, it's how he got those sacks. They weren't gimmies or coverage sacks. Ansah got off the ball, made clean pass rush moves and then got the quarterback on the ground with the ball still in his hands. In one instance in each game, Ansah also saw fit to remove that ball from the quarterback's hands before he made it to the ground.

There were his first two games back coming off an ankle injury and it's as if he not only missed no time, but improved tremendously during his time away. After his last two performances, Ansah is now up to seven sacks (or 7.5, nfl.com is weird) on the season and it looks as if he will only continue to get better.

The more plays he makes off the edge, the more things will continue to open up for those monsters at defensive tackle inside, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. The Lions' defense has had some fits and starts in recent weeks; however, upcoming opponents had better be afraid of their defensive line with Ansah playing this well.

Oh, and maybe Sheldon Richardson hasn't wrapped up that Defensive Rookie of the Year award quite yet either.

Worilds goes left

Some years ago I wrote a post about the fact that, for some pass rushers, it matters a lot which side they line up on to rush. I was specifically talking about Julius Peppers at the time and how he was being flip-flopped from side to side instead of leaving him on one side to let him dominate. Until recently, when you thought of a dominant pass rusher, you usually had a vision of the side they normally lined up on. Reggie White was always coming from the left end, for instance.

Returning to those roots, it seems that Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds is a much better rusher from the left side if recent games are any indication.

We probably would not have ever known that except for the fact that LaMarr Woodley, who normally rushes from the left, has been injured the last few weeks. After notching three sacks primarily rushing from the right side in the first nine games, Worilds has doubled his sack output to six just in the last three games while filling in for Woodley. Now, Woodley has five sacks himself on the season so he has played pretty well too, but it's going to be interesting to see if the Steelers coaches try to get Worilds some rushes from the left even after Woodley gets healthy. I know I would.

Finding help in the Dallas backfield

I hated to see Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar go down with a season-ending injury after playing so well in their win over the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day. Between Dunbar and fellow Dallas running back DeMarco Murray the Cowboys rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns on just 29 carries. That took a ton of pressure off of quarterback Tony Romo's shoulders during the annual holiday game.

Now with Dunbar out, the Cowboys will have to try to find someone else to complement Murray in the running game if they hope to keep that kind of production going. And they should hope to, because it will likely lead to a lot more wins than just chucking the ball around all willy-nilly.

Didn't they draft a running back early this spring? Time to step up and earn your keep, Joseph Randle.

Foles rolling

When we talk about the rookie quarterback class of 2012, we generally talk about Andrew Luck, RGIII, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill. I make a humble proposal that we drop Tannehill from the conversation altogether and replace him with Nick Foles.

I have had my doubts about Foles since last year, but you can't argue 19 touchdowns against zero picks. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what he has done not through 12 games, but in just six starts!

Mind you, he is also averaging over four yards per carry on 39 rushes this season.

Yeah, in Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's offense, Nick Foles might eventually make us forget Tannehill ever even existed.

If not Schiano, Bucs should cast off at least Sheridan

Last season, before the Buccaneers played the Cowboys, Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who would make the Pro Bowl for the first of what will be many times in his career, went to the head coach and asked that they stop calling so many stunts and blitzes and just let the defensive line rush straight for most of the game. The head coach, Greg Schiano, and his defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan obliged.

The Bucs went on to have one of their best days pass rushing all season, knocking Tony Romo around all game in a losing effort. There were glowing articles written locally about how the coaching staff had an open door policy and actually listened to their players' concerns.

Then the next game the Bucs went right back to blitzing and stunting and never stopped the rest of the season.

This year after an 0-8 start (what in hell took him so long?), McCoy again went to the coaching staff and asked for more straight rush. In the next two games against the Dolphins and the Falcons, McCoy put on a pass rushing clinic and came home with four sacks in just those two games, more than doubling his output on the season to six total. Once again, word got out that McCoy had asked for more straight rushes and this time the esteemed Greg Bedard even wrote about it on Peter King's MMQB site.

And then the Bucs went back to blitzing and stunting the next two games.

In a world where most folks don't know what they are seeing when they watch football, stats are a big deal. The problem is it's hard for McCoy to get sacks when the Bucs are blitzing and stunting so much because he either is getting double and triple teamed or the end to his side is losing contain and letting the quarterback escape away from him. To his credit, McCoy has never publicly complained but I'm going to do it for him.

It's time for someone to step in and take Bill Sheridan's joystick away from him because he still thinks he is playing Madden. If Schiano really wants to keep this job next year, he needs to fire Sheridan before the Bucs play another game. Thing is, I'm not entirely sure that this is Sheridan's defense anyway. I suspect it is more Schiano's than his, but if Schiano won't take ownership of it, and he has refused to, then I have to take shots at the guy with "coordinator" in his job title. This one line from Bedard's piece says so much in just a few words:

"After spending most of the season being used in puzzling ways -- as the sacrificial penetrator on a stunt, for instance -- the fourth-year pro and former third overall pick is now become the focal point of a Buccaneers pass rush that is improving."

It's way past time for the Bucs to end this crap and start putting their best player in the best position to dominate, as most competent defensive coordinators would at least be trying to do. Simply put, Bill Sheridan gotta go.

The Comeback Player of the Year in DC?

I haven't seen much talk about Comeback Player of the Year this season but Washington outside linebacker Brian Orakpo would get my vote right now. After playing in only two games last season because of a torn triceps, Orakpo has quietly bounced back to notch 8.5 sacks this year, two of which came in a losing effort Sunday against the Giants. With four games left he has a good chance to top his career high mark of 11 sacks, which he accomplished during his rookie year in 2009.

Washington's defense hasn't had much to brag about this season but Orakpo's play has been one of the few bright spots.

Chicago's scary duo

Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall: The Bears have the very definition of "pick your poison" on the outside. Yeah, theVikings limited Marshall to 4 catches for 45 yards and no touchdowns, but Jeffery went King Kong Beast Mode Sunday and hit 'em for 249 yards and 2 touchdowns on 12 catches in a losing effort.

How in the hell did this guy last until the second round? Yes, I know he had a few minor off-the-field issues and he gained a little weight before the draft, but come on man!

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(Courtesy of Buzzfeed)

This is the point where I remind you that the Jets moved up four spots in the second round in that draft to select Stephen Hill two spots ahead of where the Bears took Jeffery.

Ouch...

Browns bright spot

Another wide receiver that put up silly numbers in a loss Sunday was the Browns' Josh Gordon, who caught 10 balls for a whopping 261 yards and two touchdowns. That effort, combined with the 237 receiving yards he posted the previous Sunday in another loss to the Steelers, put Gordon in the record books as the first wide receiver in NFL history to have 200 receiving yards in consecutive weeks. Furthermore, those 261 yards are the most in NFL history for a wide receiver in a game his team lost. Mind you, he got those stats with Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden throwing him the ball, which makes it all the more impressive.

Damn shame that his crazy production hasn't translated into more wins for the Browns, but it looks as if they made the right choice in not trading him at the deadline.

Hughes finds a home

We see all the time in the NFL that one team's trash can be another team's treasure. The Bills' Jerry Hughes is yet another example of this.

The Colts selected Hughes in the first round of the 2010 draft expecting him to add to their already impressive pass rush at defensive end. After three seasons, Hughes had only started seven games and notched just five sacks. Sensing that Hughes wasn't a fit with their 3-4 defense, the Colts elected to trade him to the Bills in April of this year and it couldn't have worked out better for him.

Hughes has eight sacks on the season, including two in a losing effort on Sunday against the Falcons. That total doubles his previous career high for a season. With four games left, he could definitely get to double digits for sacks, something I doubt the Colts thought he would ever do in his career.

The lesson for all young players is don't allow your failures to define you because if you keep working and you get another opportunity, you have the ability to turn it all around.

A hidden gem in Atlanta?

Keep an eye out for this kid in Atlanta by the name of Antone Smith. He is a running back in his fourth year out of Florida State who, until this season, had run the ball only one time in his career for -3 yards and that was all the way back in 2010.

I'm not really sure what has gotten into the young Mr. Smith lately but prior to the Falcons playing the Bucs for the second time in Week 11, Smith had only one carry on the season for eight yards. Then at the end of the beatdown the Falcons caught in Raymond James Stadium, Smith exploded out of nowhere for a 50 yard touchdown, a score that made the Bucs coaching staff put some of their starters back in on both sides of the ball. His stat line for the game? Two carries for 88 yards and a touchdown.

Not too shabby.

He was awarded the next week with another carry against the Saints, a draw that went for eleven yards after he broke several tackle attempts. Then on Sunday, he burst around the left side of the line on a crack toss sweep in the second quarter of the Falcons' win over the Bills for a 38-yard touchdown.

The only question I have at this point is why in the hell can't this kid get more than a couple of carries each game? Especially with the Falcons already eliminated from the playoffs? Might as well see if he is just "lucky" or a legitimate weapon.

A dude averaging 29 yards per carry and a touchdown every three times he runs the ball damn sure sounds like a legitimate weapon to me. I'm just sayin'.

Olivier Vernon, not Dion Jordan, delivers in Miami

The Dolphins' drafting of defensive end Dion Jordan in the first round seems to have lit a fire under second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon. Vernon was a third round pick in 2012 and had a so-so rookie season, coming home with 3.5 sacks without starting any games.

This season, Vernon has been on fire, getting to 10 sacks with four games left, including 2.5 Sunday, which helped the Dolphins demolish the Jets, 23-3. That drubbing may have also helped to hasten the benching of Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith.

I know some folks will look at Jordan's output of just two sacks so far this year as dissappointing, but it's important to also give credit to Vernon for playing so well that he has kept Jordan on the bench for the most part. I can tell you this much, if Jordan turns it up next year as a pass rusher, this Dolphins front four is going to give teams fits on third-and-long. They finally found a pass rusher to complement Cameron Wake -- it just so happens that, at least for now, it's Vernon rather than Jordan.

Ratliff's return

Welcome back Jay errrr Jeremiah Ratliff. Ratliff was active for the Bears for the first time on Sunday after being released by the Cowboys, his long-time team, earlier this season partially due to a lingering groin injury. Up until now, the Bears had been using defensive end Cory Wootton as a defensive tackle with their Pro Bowler Henry Melton out for the season due to injury. Ratliff spelled Wootton early and played mostly on early downs but found his way on the field for a few third-and-long situations as well.

He didn't fill up the stat sheet and the rust was apparent from so much time off, but what I liked was Ratliff worked his butt off to get off blocks just about every single play. He was credited with one assisted tackle and he also drew a holding call on the right guard in the red zone that helped the Bears hold the Vikings to a field goal on that drive.

The quickness is still there and the power appears to still be there as well, however, it is the technique that might take a little while to come around. The Bears have to hope that it happens in a hurry because Ratliff can still be a pretty dominant force, at least against the run. And the more he can play inside, the more they can move Wootton back out to his more natural defensive end position.

If Ratliff does knock off the rust quickly and manages to stay healthy, I can't imagine he won't be starting by the end of this season.

Aging pass rushers still posting

- After 12 games, Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis has 15.5 sacks, including the one he came home with Sunday in a win over the Titans. Four games left to get to 22.5, think he can make it?

Maybe not, but 20 is definitely within his reach.

- Four weeks ago, Julius Peppers recorded one sack in a win over the Packers. Two weeks ago, Peppers recorded two sacks in a win over the Ravens. Sunday, Peppers notched 2.5 sacks in a loss to the Vikings.

*checks schedule for two weeks from now*

Hey, Browns, y'all might want to start on your plan to block Peppers tonight, Jack!

Finally...

I would love for Green Bay to play its next game in really, really cold weather, just to see if Matt Flynn would actually wear a ski mask under his helmet.

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