Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers break down the Lions' loss to the Steelers and what lies ahead against the Packers on Monday night. Detroit News
Allen Park – It’s time to acknowledge Darius Slay is playing at a Pro Bowl level.
In the first year of a four-year, $48 million extension he signed last offseason, the evolution and elevation of Slay’s game has continued, and he’s leaving little doubt he’s among the NFL’s best at his position.
The numbers speak volumes. Opposing quarterbacks are completing fewer than 60 percent of their passes Slay’s direction, his career-high three interceptions are tied for the most of any cornerback in the league and his nine pass defenses are top 10. Slay’s superb tackling in coverage has further limited the damage. He’s allowed fewer than three yards after each catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I would say the biggest area is obviously he’s very comfortable with what we do and how we do it, and I think the biggest area he’s made (strides) is really going after the ball and attacking the ball with no fear,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “A lot of times guys, if you’re not sure you’re going to get there, you’re not quite sure, you take the safe route and knock the ball down. But you see him really going after plays and trying to get the ball this year. And I think that’s a big difference, and I think that comes with confidence, and obviously he’s got plenty of that.”
The Lions have leaned heavily on Slay this season, asking him to shadow many of the game’s best receivers. Coming into Monday night’s game against Green Bay, he has traveled with the opposition’s top wideout in five of the seven games.
And, for the most part, he’s shut them all down.
Odell Beckham was limited to 30 yards, Julio Jones 50. The past two games, Michael Thomas and Antonio Brown combined for two catches on six targets for a grand total of 13 yards when Slay was covering them. Only former Carolina Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin had a modicum of success, with three grabs for 56 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown.
And even on the scoring strike, the coverage was good. A perfect pass from Cam Newton and Benjamin’s size proved to be too much on the play, but that’s the biggest breakdown you’ll find in seven games.
“Yeah, I think it’s totality,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said when asked where Slay has made the biggest strides. “You’d have to look at the entire body of work and everything that he’s required to do, and I think in all those areas, he’s gotten more comfortable, gotten better.
“From the first time that we came here, since we’ve been here, I mean, he’s grown a tremendous amount, understanding of the system and those kinds of things,” Caldwell added. “(And) he’s always had the kind of athleticism that is noteworthy.”
It remains to be seen whether the Lions will have Slay shadow a receiver in Green Bay Monday night. In years past, it would have been Jordy Nelson, but Davante Adams is just as productive these days. Plus, there’s a different dynamic to consider with Brett Hundley under center, as opposed to Aaron Rodgers.
Nelson had a big game against the Lions in Week 3 last season, catching six passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Slay covered him whenever he was on the outside, but the Packers also effectively worked the receiver in the slot. Against Slay, Nelson caught three of his four targets for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Slay gave up four receptions for 41 of Nelson’s 66 yards in the season finale at Ford Field.
“He’s a great athlete,” Nelson said during a conference call with Detroit reporters this week. “He’s very smart, very confident player. He’s got good feet, good ball skills.”
Regardless of who he’s matched up on Monday night, Slay’s play gives the Lions confidence they don’t need to worry about him.
“It helps when you have a guy that can match up with the No. 1 on the other team,” Austin said. “I think that helps. Everybody would love to have that ability to do that, and so we’re pleased that we do have that ability.”