Allen Park — Since signing with the Detroit Lions as a free agent in April, DeShon Elliott had to figurately drink from a firehose learning a new defensive scheme, while literally drinking through a straw. And although it took a little longer than both sides would have hoped, the veteran safety is entering the stretch run of the season performing at his best and fitting in the way everyone envisioned.
The union was a natural one. The Lions needed an experienced option who could start while rookie Kerby Joseph developed, and Elliott needed an opportunity to remind everyone what he could do after missing the majority of the 2021 season with a torn pec, his third major injury in four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
During the offseason program, he quickly rose to the top of the depth chart, but things weren’t clicking, in large part because Elliott was dealing with self-doubt.
“Honestly, I just felt like for being out of football for so long after I tore my pec last year, it took me a minute to get comfortable,” Elliott said. “I saw this quote from (former Ravens teammate) Marcus Peters yesterday; he said something like coming off injury, you believe in yourself, but you have this thought that maybe I’m not myself.”
Then, before he could settle in, he hit another pothole. During a walk-through practice in May, when players aren’t even in pads or moving full speed, Elliott fractured his jaw after colliding with a teammate. For a guy desperate to prove he could stay healthy after battling durability issues throughout the early stages of his career, his body had betrayed him again, in the most unexpected of ways.
Elliott didn’t require surgery for the injury, but he couldn’t open his mouth for three weeks and was on a liquid diet for more than a month. He missed all of mandatory minicamp and when he reported back to the facility for the start of training camp in late July, he wasn’t even sure he’d be medically cleared.
And while he did end up getting over that physical hurdle in time to open camp with his teammates, mental hurdles remained. That lingering self-doubt coming back from the torn pec extended to his concerns about fitting in to a new environment. In a league focused on what have you done for me lately, he knew he was starting from scratch with coaches and teammates who weren’t concerned or impressed with what he had accomplished in Baltimore. He had to re-earn the trust he’d built there here, and in trying to do so, found himself trying to do too much, going outside of his role in the scheme trying to make splash plays.
When the Lions defense was struggling to open the season, coach Dan Campbell talked about players not trusting each other while promising changes to the lineup. And part of those changes saw Elliott benched.
It didn’t last long, as a season-ending injury to Tracy Walker quickly forced Elliott back into action. Still, the benching was a wake-up call, a realization that trust was a two-way street. If he was going to prove himself in Detroit, he had to trust what the coaches were asking him to do.
“I had to look at myself and say, ‘DeShon, you know who you are and you know what you can do,'” Elliott said. “Also, I think schematically, I truly started understanding what (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) wants from me in this defense, and the changes we made to the defense right after the Patriots game, those helped us a lot. Personally, it was me truly buying in on what they wanted me to do and not pressing to make to plays and realizing plays would come to me if I just did my job.”
Last Sunday, in his sixth start since being benched, Elliott made a key play in Detroit’s 40-14 victory over Jacksonville. On the game’s second snap, he stood up Jacksonville running back Travis Etienne in the open field and forced a fumble the Lions recovered.
“The tackle with the forced fumble I really thought was the defining play of the last game,” secondary coach Brian Duker said. “I think that’s something he’s brought to our defense.”
That play is a microcosm of Elliott’s overall performance in recent weeks. He does a little bit of everything within Detroit’s defense and he does it all well. He’s effective playing the run, covering deep and man-to-man, and has even had some success blitzing. Plus, when he’s within range of a ball carrier, he’s been one of the best tacklers at his position in the NFL. He’s just two tackles shy of setting a new career-high, besting a mark he set as a 16-game starter with the Ravens in 2020.
And with that success, Elliott’s confidence issues have melted away. So much so that he’s stepped into an on-field leadership position, filling the void created by Walker’s injury. Elliott has particularly impressed his coaches with his ability to communicate on the field, which is making his teammates better, including Joseph, the rookie who has excelled since entering the lineup.
“That was the one thing that we really needed to grow on, and that was one thing that we worked on quite a bit in these last four weeks of getting those guys on the same page and make sure you get that communication out,” Glenn said. “Everybody has to be on the same page, everybody. Everybody’s connected, and he’s done a good job of that in the last couple of weeks, so he’s been doing the things that we need him to do.”
Elliott has been playing so well, it’s being recognized by fans on the national level. In the most recent batch of Pro Bowl voting, he checked in at No. 6 among strong safeties. When informed, he was taken aback.
“That’s a blessing. I’ve been through a lot, a lot of injuries, a lot of scrutiny,” Elliott said. “I think I’ve finally been able to play a full season, but able to play a full season at full tilt, do whatever is necessary. Hopefully God will bless me with good health these final five games, so I can make a lot of plays and we can make the playoffs.”