By: Will Burchfield
After his best performance in the NFL, Anthony Zettel is aching to pull his pads back on.
"I'm just looking forward to next week to get back on the field with those guys," Zettel said on Monday, "because that was the most fun I've ever had on a field."
The second-year defensive end played a big role in the Lions' season-opening win over the Cardinals, and validated a strong training camp and preseason. Zettel had a key third-down sack, another tackle for loss and an unexpected pass breakup on a throw intended for Larry Fitzgerald.
On a defensive line full of unknowns, Zettel continues to show signs that he's ready to break out. He's tough and determined, an ox in pads, and has the quickness to put his size to use.
In some ways, he's reminiscent of Kerry Hyder, a guy who squeezed every drop of talent out of his 6'2 frame. The 6'4 Zettel is bigger, but he learned lot from Hyder last year.
"I love watching Kerry, he's taught me a lot about football," Zettel said. "He was on practice squad the first two years of his career and he took his game to another level last year and he would have this year, too, without his injury. He shows us all the way."
Zettel, 25, would love to follow in Hyder's footsteps as the next unexpected star on the Lions' defensive line.
"I'm not trying to compare stats or anything with Kerry, I just want to compare effort. If I can compete in effort with him, then good things will (happen)," he said.
Zettel, the Lions' sixth-round pick in last year's draft, had a quiet rookie season. He worked hard in the offseason to improve his lower-body strength and explosiveness. He also studied film of the likes of JJ Watt and Tamba Hali, two Pro-Bowl defensive ends in whom Zettel sees some of himself.
His work paid dividends in training camp, when Zettel routinely beat defenders in one-on-one rush drills, and it continued to bear fruit in the preseason. In this light, his performance on Sunday wasn't much of a surprise.
But it was a first. The bar will be raised as a result, and that's just fine for Zettel. The higher, the better.
"Anytime you put high expectations on yourself and strive to be better every day, you can't pat yourself on the back when you do something good. You just gotta keep pushing," Zettel said.
The box score will say the Lions only had one sack against the Cardinals. It won't indicate they came close to many more. The defensive linemen's collective ability to hurry quarterback Carson Palmer played a big role in the secondary's three interceptions.
"We only had one documented sack, but we were getting after the QB the whole night. A lot of quick-throw gains and we were getting a lot of pressures, and that caused a lot of interceptions," Zettel said.
Jim Caldwell likes to call it muddying the pocket. It's a phrase that jibes with Zettel's earthy style of play. He's a guy who seems to enjoy getting his hands dirty.
On Monday, Zettel talked about the camaraderie on the Lions' defensive line, a unit full of young players with lots to prove. Even the established stars, such as Ziggy Ansah and Haloti Ngata, are feeding the group's humble, hard-working nature.
"You're out there with a bunch of high-profile guys that really love the game. Clearly these guys are getting paid really well, but it felt kind of like high school again where everybody was just playing for each other and it was just everybody getting after it. It was really exciting," Zettel said. "I had a great time out there."
Outside of Ansah, the names and faces of the Lions' defensive ends aren't familiar.
(Said Zettel, "We don't have five or 10 Ziggys, but we have a bunch of tough dudes.")
The Cardinals learned a new one on Sunday, and Zettel is looking forward to continuing introductions on Monday night in New York.
"I play this game to earn the respect of the guy across from me." Zettel said. "So I just want that guy on the Giants to know that he played me that game."
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