Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
It wasn’t the first learning experience Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay had since entering the NFL and it certainly wont be his last. But with a starting role on the defense and many of his coaches’ jobs on the line it may have been the most important.
On the Lions’ fourth defensive play against the Patriots Slay faced a test that he had yet to see in the preseason or in his entire football career — man coverage with a future Hall of Famer delivering the football. Tom Brady looked over at Slay — seeing him hunched over in press coverage, checked at the line, and was about to give the rookie his welcome into the NFL.
At the snap the Lions leave both corners on an island with safety Louis Delmas playing the deep middle of the field. Slay is matched up against the Patriots rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.
"I was in man,” Slay said. “I saw Brady looking at me. He was checking, so I should have played off man. But with my confidence I’m ready to compete, so I stayed and I seen what happened to me."
Slay tries to press Thompkins at the line of scrimmage but misses badly. His poor technique not only slows him down, but also opens up a lot of room for Thompkins to sprint down the sideline.
Things then go from bad to worse as Slay is forced to play catch-up, trailing nearly a yard behind Thompkins. Slay’s speed allows him to eventually catch up to Thompkins after he hauls in Brady’s pass. Slay knocks him out of bounds, but the result was a 37 yard completion.
Those are the kinds of plays that no cornerback wants on their resume, especially when they’re fighting for a starting job. The good news for the Lions and for Slay is that he has an unshakable confidence that allows him to put the bad plays behind him — something that can’t be said for previous corners that have put on a Lions uniform in recent years.
"It’s a confidence builder and a learning experience,” he said. “I did get a couple of (missed assignments), but I learned a lot… so I’m taking it all and I’m trying to make it all better."
Slay did just that the following week against the Buffalo Bills. He was lined up — once again in man coverage — but this time across from the Bills 4.27 speedster Marquise Goodwin on the Lions’ first defensive play of the game. Goodwin has Olympic track star speed, and any missed step by Slay could result in a long completion down field.
This time, however, rather than pressing his man at the line Slay bails at the snap and runs stride for stride with Goodwin down the sideline.
It was nice to see him keep up the former track star, but what really stands out is his ability to follow the ball in the air and knock the pass away before it reached Goodwin’s hands. That’s not something most Lions fans are used to, especially from a rookie.
"I have to find the ball,” Slay said. “Trying to avoid (pass-interference penalties), big plays like that, but if your (guy runs a fade route) you have to play through his hands."
Slay’s talent is unquestioned. He has the type of size and speed that validates his second round selection. His confidence seems unwavering. He may get knocked down, but seems to always get back up swinging. The biggest hurdle Slay needs to clear will be on the mental side of the game, and he looks like he’s well on his way. Throughout the course of the year I expect to see a few plays like the one we saw against New England, where his confidence gets that better of him. But we’ll also see a handful of plays that make you think Mayhew and Co. might have found a real gem in second round.
*Quotes courtesy of Freep.com
*All images were created using NFL Preseason Live, unless otherwise noted.