‘No Play’ Slay? Lions corner shuts down receivers

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Darius Slay might have to change his nickname to something more apt.

“Big Play Slay” has been “No Play Slay” the past couple of games as he’s shut down opposing wide receivers, thriving while the coaches have trusted him to travel with one player for most of the game.

Against the Packers on Sunday, Slay spent most of the game covering James Jones, Green Bay’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns entering the game. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers targeted Jones just twice in the game and only once when Slay was on him, and Jones didn’t have a single catch.

“I think he certainly played tough, managed his area of responsibility I think very well,” coach Jim Caldwell said of Slay. “I think we all know he’s got the skill set to be really an outstanding player, and you see that from him. And (Sunday) they didn’t take a whole lot of shots at him. They were working the other side more often than not, but when he was called upon to get it done he did well.”

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With Slay on Jones, the Packers frequently looked to the other side as Rodgers targeted Davante Adams 21 times — 22 including the failed 2-point try. Fortunately, cornerback Nevin Lawson did well to limit Adams’ production for much of the game as Adams turned those targets into just 79 yards on 10 catches.

And there’s no doubt Slay’s ability altered the Packers’ game plan as Rodgers rarely looked in Jones’ direction, even on a couple of routes where he came free.

For most of the season, the Lions kept Slay stationed at left cornerback and Rashean Mathis at right. When Mathis — who’s now on injured reserve (concussion) — sat in Week 8 against the Chiefs, Slay traveled with Jeremy Maclin. Maclin finished the game with just three catches for 35 yards, and his 17-yard touchdown happened against a zone defense with Slay in coverage elsewhere.

According to Pro Football Focus, Slay allowed just one catch for 7 yards on three targets against the Chiefs, and he had two pass breakups on the others. So, in the past two games, he’s been targeted just four times with one catch.

Slay had a couple of miscues early in the season, losing two 50-50 deep balls against the Broncos in Week 3 and another against the Cardinals in Week 5.

“I did pretty good,” Slay said after the loss to Denver. “I just lost the 50-50 balls. That’s it.”

Had Slay made plays on those jump balls, his third NFL season would look a lot better as he’s been a reliable cover man for most of the season. Those three catches by Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and Arizona’s John Brown totaled 128 yards, which is almost 35 percent of the 371 receiving yards Slay has allowed this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

It’s unclear if the Lions will keep traveling Slay with one receiver in the coming weeks. Caldwell said such a decision depends on which team the Lions play, and the Raiders, who come Sunday to Ford Field, have two solid receivers in rookie Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.

But, after his performance the last two games, the Lions have a lot more faith in Slay’s ability to be a shutdown cornerback.

“We just think he’s got ability now,” Caldwell said. “He can run, he can press you, he can play off, he’ll come up and tackle you, he’s got the quickness that you look for. And oftentimes we give him the tough assignments.

“(That) doesn’t mean he’s going to be flawless, but he’s going to be where he’s supposed to be.”