FOXBORO -- It looked like the Dolphins just plain forgot about Danny Shelton. With the Patriots showing blitz on a first-down play in the third quarter on Sunday, Miami's interior offensive line directed its attention to Dont'a Hightower and left Shelton totally unchecked.
How might one lose track of a 6-foot-2, 330-pound man? Good question. But Shelton was happy to burst into the backfield to sack Ryan Fitzpatrick and set up Miami with one of the many impossible down-and-distance scenarios they faced over the course of the afternoon en route to a 43-0 defeat.
Through two games this year, Shelton has been a force at the point of attack in a Patriots defense that has scored more points than it has allowed. He showed up with a big third-down run-stuff against the Steelers in Week 1 and followed that up with his first sack as a member of the Patriots a week later.
"He has shown us that since he came back to us last spring, to being with us this fall, that he's definitely somebody that we can lean on and continue to get good results," defensive line coach Bret Bielema said recently. "I will tell you this, he's worked very hard to get where he is, and hopefully the good things will continue to come to him."
Large as his frame may be, Shelton was a bit of a forgotten man in New England last year. Acquired in a trade with the Browns before the start of the 2018 season, he was a healthy scratch for three consecutive weeks late in the year and did not play in the AFC Championship Game.
He played 15 snaps in Super Bowl LIII and was effective in helping to shut down the Rams rushing attack, but he wasn't flooded with offers in the offseason as a free agent. After two months as a free agent, the Patriots re-signed Shelton to a one-year contract. That came about two months after the team had already locked up veteran big-bodied defensive lineman Mike Pennel.
Shelton looked like the backup plan to play nose tackle in New England's 3-4 defensive fronts, with Pennel as the front-runner. But Shelton arrived to the team this summer in better shape than he did in 2018 and ready to compete.
After weighing 342 pounds at times last season, he checked in at 325, perhaps even surprising Bill Belichick, Shelton believed. The slimmed-down look was a result of eating cleaner and an offseason workout regimen that included martial arts, weight-lifting, and chopping wood he asked be left behind when a tree-removal service finished up some work at his Washington home.
Shelton also brought a new approach to his gig. He was considered one of the top players in the draft in 2015, going at pick No. 12 overall to the Browns as a behemoth of a human being with the explosiveness of a much smaller man.
But with that first-round status came expectations. He expected to help turn things around for the team that drafted him. He expected to put up numbers. The first didn't happen in Cleveland. The second didn't happen in New England, where two-gapping and run defense is highly valued.
He knew that in his second go-round with the Patriots and in Belichick's scheme, he wanted to handle what was thrown at him differently.
"I felt like that initially coming in, Bill, you know he doesn't do something without a reason behind it," Shelton said last month. "Bringing me back kind of opened my eyes to another opportunity to grow as a player under him and contribute to the team's success.
"Coming in, my mindset was basically to earn it. That was something I had to learn last year, and I'm thankful that I went through those hard times, that adversity last year. It made me that much better of a player.
"Going throughout my whole career not being inactive, not really being a rotator. That was something new for me. It's exciting at the same time, challenging. But that's part of the game. Those exciting times and those challenging times. I got to face both of those last year."
Between last year's difficulties and this past offseason, Shelton grew to the point that he thoroughly outplayed the player who was expected to be at the top of the nose tackle depth chart. Pennel was released before the end of camp, signaling Shelton had won the job.
Though players never lose that first-round badge with which they enter the league, Shelton felt as though -- now off of his rookie contract and into the year-to-year grind facing most players in the league -- there has been a different feeling to the start of his fifth year.
"I like to think that I've learned from my first year, first two years when I was a young guy, first-rounder," Shelton explained. "Trying to make everybody happy. Trying to be a first-rounder. The stresses with losing and outside of football distractions. That's something I had to grow from. I'm thankful for the opportunity I've had to go through some of that adversity I've gone through and I'm excited for what's next, the new challenges coming."
Asked about Shelton's progress Monday, after a second straight solid performance, Belichick didn't hesitate to acknowledge the development he's seen.
"I think Dan's really improved a lot from year one to year two here," Belichick said. "Not that this is his first year in the league, I don't mean it that way, but last year was his first year with the Patriots. This year, going into the year was really a lot better, I think, for me and for him.
"I have a better feeling for what his style of play is and what things I think we can really take advantage of in the defense. I'm not sure that we did a great job of that last year, but he's very good at some things, and we'll try to get him to do those as much as we can. He's been great all year."
That sentiment is similar to one we've heard Belichick share before. When discussing Patrick Chung or Jamie Collins, players who were with the Patriots once and came back with specific roles in mind, Belichick has noted that the Patriots coaching staff might have a better sense for how to use someone's strengths after some time apart. With Shelton, it might've only taken one offseason to realize how he ideally fits in the middle of their defensive line.
And of course, Shelton's work to improve has played a significant role in his uptick in responsibilities as well.
"First guy in, last guy out type of attitude," Belichick said of Shelton. "He's very attentive and has worked very hard on the things that we've asked him to do, and some of those are a little different than they were last year . . . but he's really improved now, I'd say, in every area. Run defense, pass defense, read blocking schemes, and just overall awareness and communication on the defensive front, which there's a decent amount of. So I like having him on the team, and I think his role and his understanding, and the confidence he has in the defense and the confidence the defense has in him, it's definitely taken a couple steps forward."
Two months into his second season with the Patriots, his fifth season as a pro, it looks like he's a long way from being a forgotten man again anytime soon.
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