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Observations from Lions vs. Saints All-22 film: Danny Shelton is very good

The Lions overall defense may be flailing, but they’re getting solid play from their veteran defensive tackle.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It seems every single time I view the All-22 film of a Detroit Lions game (courtesy of NFL Game Pass), I find that the game either was never as bad as it seemed or as good as it seemed, depending on the outcome. You may think that Sunday’s 35-29 loss to the New Orleans Saints may be an exception to the rule. After all, Matthew Stafford was bad, the defense was even worse, and it all resulted in five straight long touchdown drives for New Orleans.

But it wasn’t an exception. There were still promising things I found in the Lions’ performance and players that I think fans are undervaluing. Did I come out of the film review thinking the Lions were a great, or even good, team? No, I did not. But there were a team that had a legitimate chance of winning that game with players competing at a good level.

For this week’s film breakdown, I’m just going to be focusing on one things—and I’ll make it positive.

Reminder: These are meant to be deeper observations than those that are obvious from the television broadcast. For example, “the run defense is bad” will not be among these observations.

Danny Shelton is playing is ass off

I know given how bad the Lions run defense has been and how poor their pass rush is, this feels like an impossibility, but Shelton has jumped off the film in consecutive weeks on just how disruptive of a force he is, especially in the run game.

Here are three plays just from the Saints game:

First, here is Shelton lined up over Saints left guard Nick Easton (#62). He immediately beats Easton off the line, displaying some surprising short-area quickness. He takes on the fullback without losing ground, and redirects the running back inside, where there’s absolutely no room for Latavius Murray. Credit to nose tackle John Penisini for two-gapping at the nose to perfection, as well.

Play #2:

Again lined up over Easton, Shelton displays his pure strength here while also showing his discipline. He’s again accountable for the gaps on both sides of him, and by keeping Easton at an arm’s length, he’s able to keep his eye on Murray. He’s forced himself deep enough into the backfield so that Murray has to cut back inside, where both Shelton and Da’Shawn Hand are waiting for a 2-yard loss.

From the sideline angle, you can really see how Shelton’s penetration blocks off the outside path for Murray.

Play #3

This may be Shelton’s most impressive run stop of the day. Alvin Kamara is an entirely different beast back there, and given the elite running back’s patience, it requires even more discipline from the defense. Here, lined up at the nose, Shelton is responsible for both a-gaps. Kamara is looking directly at Shelton to see where he should go:

Kamara, being the patient back that he is, doesn’t give much indication where he’s going to go. First he makes a subtle step to his right. Shelton follows:

Kamara sees there’s not much there. He shuffles his feet and reluctantly goes to the left. Shelton is there, too:

And, most impressively of all, Shelton makes the tackle on the slippery back (with some help from Trey Flowers):

So why is the Lions run defense still so bad despite Shelton’s good play? Well, go look back at all three of these plays. How many linebackers had shed their blocks and were prepared to make a play? None? Yeah, that’s about right. Shelton is basically the Matthew Stafford of the defense. He has to play perfect ball or this defense is screwed.

And while Shelton doesn’t bring much in terms of pass rush, lest we forget his most impactful play of the game: the very first defensive snap on Sunday:

In the past two weeks, Shelton has earned a collective PFF grade of 73.7. While that’s not outstanding, it is good enough for 26th among all 124 qualifying defensive tackles over that time period. If the Lions can somehow clean things up on the second level, there may still be hope for this unit yet.