Niyo: Lions' Darius Slay gets picky at the right time

John Niyo
The Detroit News
With the Bears in their red zone late in the fourth quarter, the Lions' Darius Slay intercepts a pass intended for the Bears' Daniel Brown, much to the pleasure of Detroit coach Jim Caldwell, turning the ball over to Detroit, which ran out the clock and preserved 20-10 victory.

Detroit — Darius Slay is anything but robotic. Not in the way he moves nor in the way he talks. But the Lions' cornerback is making good on a preseason promise to play like a machine.

“I’m trying to be a turnover machine,” is the way Slay put it back in August. And true to his word, that’s exactly what he has become for Detroit’s defense this season, putting the kind of statistical backing behind the “Big Play” Slay nickname he brought with him to the NFL as a second-round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 2013.

Saturday, he proved it again as the Lions’ bolstered their playoff hopes with a 20-10 victory over the Chicago Bears at Ford Field.

Slay played a starring role in the win with two more interceptions, raising his league-leading total to seven for the season. That’s not just a career high for him, either. It’s more than double Slay’s career total after snagging six combined in his first four years as a pro.

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"It's just being in the right spot, making the plays I’m supposed to make,” he said. “I’ve been supposed to make these plays.”

Only now, he added, he’s no longer simply knocking down passes.

“I’m coming up with the pick,” he said.

Opportunistic sense

And for the Lions, it’s making a world of difference, as Slay has emerged as the kind of play-making, finger-wagging cornerback this franchise has been waiting on for what feels like an eternity. The kind that can turn an average defense into something more than that, capitalizing on mistakes and making the most of opportunities.

Honestly now, where would this Lions team be without the big plays from their secondary — 14 interceptions and five fumble recoveries — this season? Certainly not at 8-6 with an outside shot at an NFC wild-card berth.

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Slay, meanwhile, is a lock to earn his first Pro Bowl nod next month, finishing second among NFC cornerbacks — behind the Vikings’ Xavier Rhodes — in the fan voting announced Saturday. (The fan vote makes up one-third of the final Pro Bowl balloting.) And he’d be the Lions’ first Pro Bowler at the position since Dre Bly in 2004.

“I felt like I could’ve been in the Pro Bowl for the past three years, but I didn’t get enough hands on the ball,” Slay said last week in Tampa, where he also had an interception and fumble recovery. “Now I’m getting my hands on the ball and I’m making a lot of plays and giving the offense a lot of chances, being a game-changer.”

So what has changed? Slay says it’s more a matter of time than timing, with 72 games and nearly 4,000 regular-season snaps under his belt. He credits the mentorship of veterans like Rashean Mathis and Glover Quin, both of whom taught him the value of mental preparation.

“As a rookie, I was just out there playing ball,” Slay said. “I wasn’t too much a film-study guy.”

Now, he knows better. And the results bear it out.

“It’s just a maturity factor,” head coach Jim Caldwell said. “He has always had an inordinate amount of athletic ability. You could see that when he first came into the league. He can run, he’s quick, he’s competitive, he loves to mix it up. And now just through experience and seeing a lot of things throughout the years, he’s really coming into his own and playing extremely well.”

He did again Saturday, providing arguably the game’s biggest play on the opening drive of the second half. On second-and-8 from the Chicago 22, Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears’ rookie quarterback, scrambled to avoid the rush of Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and overthrew his receiver, Kendall Wright, as he did. The way Slay saw it, there were two possible outcomes at that point, and neither of them were good for the visiting team.

“Either it was gonna be an incomplete pass or a complete pass to me,” he said, smiling. “So I just made a play on it.”

After he did, with a toe-tap interception on the sideline, Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense took advantage of the short field, scoring a touchdown to make it 20-3, which felt like the insurmountable lead it ultimately proved to be.

Snags another

Just for good measure, Slay added another interception on the Bears’ final possession in the fourth quarter, a 10-play drive that began at their own 6-yard line and had Slay admittedly perturbed.

“I was kind of mad,” he said, “And I was getting angrier. So I wanted to score.”

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He almost did, only getting shoved out of bounds by tight end Daniel Brown after he’d returned it 19 yards, running right past his own head coach, Jim Caldwell, who was on the sideline demonstratively motioning for him to slide to the turf to seal the win with 28 seconds left.

“I saw him,” Slay said, laughing. “It’s a coaching point.”

Next time, he says, he’ll listen. Unless he has a clear path to the end zone, in which case he does have a touchdown celebration already planned.

As for what it might look like?

“I ain’t gonna tell y’all that right now,” he said. “Because it didn’t happen.”

At this rate, it will soon enough, though. Because for some reason, opponents are still throwing the ball Slay’s way. Slay came into Saturday’s game as the third-most targeted cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. And with the Bears trailing throughout this one — and unable to muster any rushing attack — Trubisky threw at Slay six times. The end result was three pass breakups and two interceptions, giving Slay the league lead in both categories with 20 passes defended to go with the seven picks.

“Needs to learn his lesson,” Slay said. “Ain’t too many times you want to throw it at 23.”

There was no finger wag. Slay saves those for the playing field. But the tone in his voice said it all as he left the podium, muttering, "Need to learn that right quick."