Niyo: Lions' 'Big Play' Darius Slay gets final say on busy day

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Darius Slay had a pretty good idea all week what was coming.

But just in case he didn’t, Philip Rivers, the Los Angeles Chargers' veteran quarterback, let him know shortly before kickoff Sunday at Ford Field.

“Right before the game, he sat there and told me, ‘Slay, it’s gonna be early and often,’” the Lions’ Pro Bowl cornerback recalled.

What Rivers said was no lie, as it turned out. But Slay, well, he’s the exact opposite of shy. And when it was all over Sunday, Slay would have the last word, as his late interception in the end zone secured the Lions’ 13-10 comeback win.

“Like he always does,” laughed Marvin Jones, his veteran teammate who has had countless one-on-one battles — and just as many conversations — on the practice field over the last few years.

But this Sunday was a little different than most others for Slay. He always has a lot to say, but against the Chargers, he had even more to do, matched up all afternoon with Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen, who has racked up nearly 200 catches for more than 2,500 yards the last two seasons as Rivers’ No. 1 target.

“He’s top five,” Slay said of Allen, a fellow 2013 draft classmate whom he knows well. “He’s one of the best out here. And we were gonna battle, going back and forth, back and forth.”

That’s what Allen does to even the best cornerbacks in the NFL, utilizing his size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and athleticism while dragging defenders this way and that with his unique route-running skills. 

“His head-turns, his shoulder-leans, and some of the ways he skips off the line of scrimmage,” Lions coach Matt Patricia noted earlier in the week. “He has some unorthodox releases, too, that are just extremely difficult to defend against.”

Battle of the best

A week ago, the Lions’ opponent barely tested Slay, who like Allen is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and who, as everyone knows, stayed away from the Lions' offseason workouts in a bid for a new contract this summer. Arizona’s Kyler Murray dropped back to pass nearly 60 times in the season opener, yet he threw just four times at the receiver Slay was responsible for in coverage. And only one of those passes was completed.

But on Sunday, Rivers targeted Allen nine times in the first half alone, completing a handful of them for 55 yards. Allen also drew a second-quarter holding penalty on Slay, and then seemed to have his number on the Chargers’ first possession of the third quarter.

Slay was disgusted with the pass interference call he picked up on the second of two consecutive throws that came his way on that drive. Allen shook Slay on the first with a terrific inside fake and a sharp break outside to pick up 23 yards on second-and-16. Then came a pass into the end zone as Rivers rolled to his left and bought time before overthrowing a falling Allen. Slay wagged his finger as the ball fell incomplete, then turned and threw up his hands in disbelief when he saw the flag.

Lions' Darius Slay breaks up a pass for Chargers' Keenan Allen in the first quarter.

That penalty gave the Chargers the ball at the 1-yard line, with a chance to extend their lead to 17-6. But on first-and-goal from the 1, the Lions forced a fumble by Austin Ekeler. Tavon Wilson came knifing through to make the initial contact as Ekeler tried to leap across the goal line, and then Jahlani Tavai knocked the ball loose — “He bailed me out, pretty good,” Slay said — and Devon Kennard recovered.

And on a day where the defense struggled to get much, if any, pressure on Rivers, that play proved to be a game-changer.

So would Slay’s resolve, though.

“That’s what me being a veteran, you learn,” he said. “(Pass interference) calls and all that stuff don’t distract me. I go on to the next play and keep playing.”

Good thing, too. Because the game was still hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter when Rivers looked Allen’s way once more.

Last dance

The Lions had finally taken the lead on Matthew Stafford’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Golladay with 7:21 to play. But the Chargers responded with a lengthy drive of their own. Slay left the game early in that drive after an awkward fall that briefly required medical attention, but he returned a few plays later and resumed his “mano-a-mano” fight with Allen.

And then facing third-and-19 from the Lions’ 28-yard line, Rivers decided to take a shot at the end zone rather than relying on a backup kicker who’d already missed twice Sunday. His target? Allen, of course.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Slay said. “That’s his go-to guy. That’s his man. If I’m the quarterback, I’m throwing to him, too. I don’t care if he’s double-covered or triple-covered. That’s my guy and I’m gonna see if he can make a play.”

But this time, it was Slay who lived up to his “Big Play” Slay moniker as he ran stride for stride with Allen downfield.

“Good corners in this league, they find the ball, and I think that’s what he did,” Rivers said. “His back was turned, but he found the ball and made a good play.”

Slay claimed after the game he “kind of baited” Rivers into making the ill-advised throw, one that safety Tracy Walker also converged on from behind Allen. And once he'd let it go, Slay's head swiveled, "and I said, ‘Ooh, this (expletive) is mine,’” he laughed.

It was, indeed, as Slay cradled the ball in his arms and held on tight as Allen tried in vain to strip it loose as they fell to the ground in the end zone. Asked later where this interception ranked among the 18 now for his NFL career, Slay said it’s “probably my second favorite,” right behind the last-minute pick he made to set up Matt Prater’s winning Thanksgiving Day kick against the Vikings in 2016, and just ahead of the one that did the same against the Eagles earlier that season.

Allen, for his part, told reporters after the game he felt like he was “putting on a clinic” for most of the afternoon.

“But then it comes down to the last play, and he makes a play,” said Allen, who finished with eight catches on 15 targets for 98 yards. “And all that, in my mind, goes out the window. … My hat’s off to him.”

He wasn’t the only one saying that, either.

“He really did come up big for us at the end,” Jones said. “That’s all we need. And that’s all anybody’s gonna remember.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo