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Lions secondary keeps it close off the field

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — After finishing their three-day minicamp Thursday, many of the Lions players were looking forward to some time off before training camp begins in early August.

For cornerback Darius Slay and some of the other members of the secondary, the focus is on when they can get back together to work out. It's a unique bond, built mainly between Slay, Rashean Mathis and safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo.

"We're all trying to group up right now to figure out where we're going to train together," Slay said. "Shean and I (live) only 30 minutes away from each other, so we have that worked out."

Quin and Ihedigbo stay in constant contact even during the offseason and when Ihedigbo wasn't around for a voluntary offseason conditioning program because of a contract dispute, Quin wasn't concerned. After Ihedigbo reported for organized team activities, Quin wasn't surprised.

The four have built a sturdy relationship on and off the field, and it showed last season, with the secondary being a steady part of the No. 2 defense in the league. That cohesiveness was critical to their success.

"That's imperative; that's one of the most important things you'll see within teams that are consistently right in the thick of things — good teams do it that way," coach Jim Caldwell said. "You have to have veterans that are knowledgeable, veterans that can communicate properly, veterans that understand your system and guys that are willing to do it too."

Seeing the veterans share their knowledge and help the younger players improve is one of the keys to maintaining a high level of play — and it's clear in the mentorship between Mathis, 34, and Slay, 24, that teaching is more at the forefront than Mathis worrying about Slay taking his job.

"There are some vets that are so afraid of keeping their position that they don't talk to the younger guys and give them any edges because it's so competitive," Caldwell said. "Our guys are more interested in winning and the greater mission than they are their own personal gain."

Mathis is one of the vocal leaders of the secondary and after re-signing for another two years, is the key component to keeping the whole group intact. The key is providing a balance for Slay's youth and exuberance with some savvy veteran leadership.

Slay said that getting Mathis back was "huge" and adding rookie Alex Carter to the mix will help as well.

"It's been great, keeping the guys together. It's all about building chemistry and family," Slay said. "We're brothers so we can talk about whatever; being there with our brothers is so much fun."

In his 13 seasons, Mathis has seen so much and Slay, who had a breakout third season, readily shows his enthusiasm, including a Dikembe Mutombo-inspired finger wag when he breaks up a pass.

But Mathis sometimes has to rein in Slay's emotions, buoyed by the age difference and generation gap. But Mathis uses those instances as reminders that Slay needs to get better, both in his performance on the field and how he handles his success.

"He's a young guy so for me to tell him to put it on the back burner is kind of hard, but he knows he has to get better," Mathis said. "He knows he hasn't even reached close to where he can be. It's up to veterans like me and Quin and Ihedigbo to show him that there's another level of play and there's another level of consistency."

With getting all the key players back and the anticipated improvement, the Lions secondary could elevate to become one of the most potent in franchise history, building on the success of last year's overall defense under coordinator Teryl Austin.

"The sky is the limit for us. We approach practice the right way and meetings the right way. We respect each other and care about each other so we're going to give our all for each other during the game," Mathis said. "If pride is there, we check it at the door; there's no one man before a group. That's what helps, knowing that the group is bigger than yourself."

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

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