Lions' Slay vs. Giants' Beckham a marquee matchup

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Odell Beckham

Allen Park – Football isn’t really a game of individual matchups. There are simply too many interconnected components that go into each individual play. But if you could put the spotlight on a one-on-one battle, few rival cornerback vs. receiver.

That’s not to say there aren’t multiple coverage looks that alter a defensive back’s responsibilities, or the pass rush doesn’t matter, but there’s a reason a cornerback is said to be on an island. His job, on most pass plays, is to shadow his assignment and prevent completions.

There will be plenty of intriguing storylines when the Detroit Lions travel to New York to meet the Giants. There’s playoff positioning in play, everyone wants to know how quarterback Matthew Stafford’s finger will affect him, plus there’s potential for inclement weather. But no area of the field will merit the attention of our eyeballs more than Lions cornerback Darius Slay lining across from Giants receiver Odell Beckham.

Both are among the best in the world at what they do. Beckham, 24, is unquestionably more well-known. The 2014 Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler has a dazzling highlight reel filled with jaw-dropping one-handed grabs. Since debuting, his jersey is typically among the top sellers.

Even Slay’s son is a fan.

“Guys like him are very exciting with the ball,” Slay said. “My son loves watching his highlights.”

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Slay, a second-round pick in 2013 is more under-the-radar, at least at the national level, but his reputation as one of the top cover corners has grown in the analytics community. The Lions didn’t hesitate to give him a contract that matched the perception, signing him to a four-year, $48-million extension this offseason.

Slay is enjoying one of the finest stretches of his career. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s allowed only 71 receiving yards the past four games. That includes a 31-yard touchdown against the Bears last weekend, when he got beat on a double-move trying to jump a route.

The Lions have been both quick to praise Beckham and downplay the matchup with Slay. No one is saying whether the cornerback will shadow the receiver, although the Giants are certainly expecting it.

“They usually travel him with the best receivers so expect him to follow Odell around most of the day,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “He's doing a good job, he's making plays, a lot of breakups, a couple interceptions late in the game, sealed some games. We got to watch his technique and see what routes we can run versus him. They do a good job of using him in different ways.”

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What makes the 5-foot-11 Beckham so good? How about everything.

“He’s as fast as any you’ll face, he’s got as good of hands as any you’ll face, he’s explosive as any that you’ll face, he’s as competitive as any that you’ll face,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.

Beckham is particularly lethal as a big-play threat. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys, who were holding the Giants in check last Sunday night until Beckham took a short slant in the third quarter, juked past the safety and raced 60 yards for the winning touchdown. He leads the NFL with six receptions of 40 or more yards.

And that’s not a fluke. He led the league last year, as well, and was top-5 as a rookie.

“Sometimes you’re just looking for completions, but you understand when you have the opportunity to hit him in stride, if you throw him an accurate ball when he’s running away, then good things tend to happen,” Manning said. “If you give him a chance to catch and run, he has a great ability to make that first guy miss and turn what could be a 10-yard completion to a 60-yard touchdown.”

The Lions, to their credit, have done an excellent job preventing big plays this season, ranking in the top half of the league in both receptions of 20-plus and 40-plus yards allowed. Beckham will put that strength to the test.

Just don’t look for the Lions to exploit Beckham’s biggest weakness, his temperament. The receiver has drawn multiple personal foul penalties in the past for losing his cool, but Slay isn’t much of an instigator. He hopes his play will be enough to annoy.

“That’s not a game plan for me,” Slay said. “Me winning a down is getting under your skin. I don’t need to talk to get under anybody’s skin.”