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Slay's health critical to Lions' fortunes against Packers

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay will celebrate his 26th birthday on Sunday. He might want to use the wish that comes with blowing out the candles on his cake for a healthy enough hamstring to play that night against the Green Bay Packers.


The Lions need Slay. Desperately.


The team won’t admit that, of course, but one look at what Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant was able to do against the secondary missing the Pro Bowl alternate last Monday tells you all you need to know.  

Bryant overpowered Johnson Bademosi for one touchdown, went up over Nevin Lawson for another, and drew a pass interference against Lawson to set up a third.  The Packers present an even more lethal passing attack, led by Aaron Rodgers, the most efficient passer in NFL history, and Jordy Nelson, who is leading the league with 14 touchdowns.


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Whether Slay gets medically cleared before Sunday remains to be seen and he’s declined interview requests the past two days. He’s been plagued by hamstring issues much of the year, and it’s already cost him three games. He essentially took a month to recover from the first flare up — two games and the team’s bye — so it was a surprise when he returned to the practice field on Wednesday, only 10 days after re-aggravating the injury.

The Lions lean solely on their medical staff to determine whether a player can practice and play. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin labeled Slay practicing early in the week as encouraging and coach Jim Caldwell said it gives the team a better read on whether he’s physically ready for Sunday.

If it’s determined Slay can’t go, Austin said it’s his job to scheme around it to find a way to slow down Rodgers and the red-hot Packers offense.  

“I think what you do is you call your defense as you have it,” Austin said. “Then what you try to do is say, ‘What can we do to help the person if they need help?’ Usually we have something in our bag that we try to get to. Does it always get executed or done the way we want? Not always.

“It makes maybe a little tougher, but nothing that we shouldn’t be able to handle and shouldn’t be successful. Again, we’ve won quite a few games with a lot of guys down. That’s never an excuse about, ‘Well, I couldn’t call this, I couldn’t call that.’ It’s my job to figure out a way to get it done, and we’ll figure out a way.”


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Nelson, who would likely see plenty of Slay in coverage on Sunday, isn’t getting his hopes up. Rodgers’ favorite target fully expects another fierce matchup with his respected on-field rival.

“He’s got great feet, great mind, definitely plays the ball extremely well,” Nelson said. “He’s a great player, athlete, can do everything.

“We expect him to be there and expect a good battle.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, doing his best to keep the mood light leading up to the game that will decide the NFC North, wouldn’t mind if the Lions held Slay out one more week.

“I mean he’s a heck of a player,” McCarthy said. “I just love the way he plays. I think it’ll be important that Darius, you know, he probably needs to rest that hamstring to get ready for next week.”

Without Slay, there might not be a next week for the Lions. A win Sunday night not only earns Detroit its first division title in 23 years, but the home playoff game that comes along with that. The team could still sneak into the postseason with a loss, but would need Washington to also lose. And even then, it’s a road trip, to Seattle, Atlanta or Green Bay, three far less appealing matchups.

Bottling up Rodgers is a tall task, no matter what. He’s put together another MVP campaign and is completing 71.4 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions during the Packers’ current five-game win streak. Without Slay, it might be impossible.

Slay has defended 13 passes this season and his two interceptions have come in critical moments in the fourth quarter, helping the Lions seal a pair of victories. 


Lions vs. Packers

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Ford Field

TV / radio: NBC / WJR 760

Records: Both teams 9-6

Line: Packers by 3

At stake: Winner is NFC North champion. Loser will make playoffs if Washington loses to the New York Giants.