Niyo: Playmakers Tate, Slay seize control

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and corner back Darius Slay hug on the field after a 24-23 Detroit victory.

Detroit – Golden Tate knew what needed to happen. So did Darius Slay.

And with another Lions season on the brink Sunday, they knew it couldn’t wait any longer.

So there went Tate, the receiver who’d gone missing, coming across the field on what was supposed to be a shallow crossing route. And then there came the ball from Matthew Stafford, floating neatly in front of him, an opportunity waiting to be grabbed.

“You can’t ask for anything else but that,” Tate said. “Just an opportunity. My number was called.”

And fortunately for the Lions, he answered, just as Slay had moments earlier, giving their team a chance – an opportunity, nothing else – to do something yet with this season, as the Lions rallied Sunday for a 24-23 win over the previously unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles at Ford Field.

How big was this win?

“It’s big, man – real big,” said Slay, who played a big part in making it happen Sunday, forcing a fumble to set up the go-ahead score – Matt Prater’s 29-yard field goal with 1:28 left – and then sealing the victory with an interception on the Eagles’ first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive.

“That’s my nickname, ‘Big Play Slay,’” he laughed, “so I try to make every play I do big.”

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Those two certainly qualified. The fumble was the Eagles’ first turnover of the season. The interception was the first thrown by rookie quarterback Carson Wentz in 135 pass attempts this season.

And yet when he dropped back and heaved one downfield on first down from his own 25-yard line, Slay said he only had one thought.

“It’s gotta be mine,” said Slay, who was running step-for-step with Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor and tracking the ball the entire way.

“I was surprised he even threw that,” Slay said. “I was in great position so I’m like, ‘OK.’ But then I looked in the air and I said, ‘Oh, the ball is coming for real. He’s really throwing this. Oh well, it’s time for his first career pick.’”

It was, in fact – “He made a great play,” Wentz said – and while it clinched it for the home team, it was the third-down fumble that really got a rise out of Jim Caldwell.

Embattled Caldwell

The embattled head coach nearly got taken out on the play, as Slay knocked the football loose from Eagles running back Ryan Mathews and Tyrunn Walker came up with it after mad scramble near midfield with 2:34 to play. Caldwell jumped and celebrated as the play came crashing into the Lions’ sideline, the normally stoic coach immediately signaling Lions possession, well before referee Pete Morelli and an official review confirmed it.

“Something good happens, I’m usually pretty excited about it,” Caldwell explained. “That one just happened to happen right in front of me.”

Lots of bad things have happened to happen to his team lately, with injuries piling up along with the losses – three in a row after that wild season-opening win in Indianapolis. And for a coach squarely on the hot seat, it’d be easy to understand if he’s getting a little jumpy, though Caldwell — and his players — insist he’s not, and never will.

Still, for a team that already seemed short on playmakers, all the absentee ballots are impossible to ignore.

The defense is struggling mightily without Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekial Ansah and linebacker DeAndre Levy, and Haloti Ngata left Sunday’s game with an injury as well. The Lions had forced just one turnover all year, and opposing quarterbacks — facing little, if any, pressure — came in averaging a league-high 120.2 passer rating.

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Meanwhile, an offense that already lost running back Ameer Abdullah to a likely season-ending knee injury in Week 2, also played Sunday without tight end Eric Ebron.

The Lions hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown since Week 3, and they hadn’t held a lead since that ugly penalty-filled home opener against Tennessee. The Eagles, meanwhile, hadn’t allowed a passing touchdown all season. So this seemed like a bad matchup at the worst possible time for Detroit.

But the Lions showed up with a perfect script, and for a change, they’d memorized their lines.

Multiple formations

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter seemed to have all the answers for an Eagles defense led by ex-Lions coach Jim Schwartz that came in ranked No. 1 in the NFL. He utilized heavy sets with an extra lineman, kept the Eagles off-balance with multiple formations and even used Tate as running back — a move that paid immediate dividends setting up a fake on the first touchdown.

The Eagles had allowed just 27 points in their first three games. The Lions scored 21 on their first three possessions Sunday.

“Felt like Detroit in the first half was maybe a half-step ahead of us,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.

That changed dramatically in the third quarter, though, as the Eagles seized control and stopped the Lions in their tracks, allowing Stafford & Co. just two first downs and 19 total yards on four second-half possessions before that pivotal fumble recovery.

That’s when opportunity knocked, though. Facing third-and-4 and a serious rush, Stafford waited in the pocket as Tate fought his way through traffic, drifting much deeper than intended on his route. Just before he got hit by Eagles’ defensive tackle Bennie Logan, Stafford let it fly, and put it where only Tate could reach it.

“Just a hell of a throw by Matt,” said Tate, who caught it in stride and took it 27 yards to the Philadelphia 12 – a late hit pushed it halfway to the goal line from there. “It was an absolute dime.”

And for Tate, who’d struggled with a diminished role and some meager production the first four weeks, it was a long-overdue payoff. He said he’d realized there was no sense worrying about limited touches or hurt feelings, that this was no time to “worry about all that other crap that I can’t control.”

“I just knew that at some point my number’s gonna be called and I’m gonna have to make a play,” he said.

And once it was, and after he had, “It felt real good,” he admitted.

“I needed that,” Tate said. “This team needed that.”

Now they just need more.