Darius Slay: Breaking Down the Lions' Rookie Cornerback

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Darius Slay: Breaking Down the Lions' Rookie Cornerback
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With injuries to Detroit Lions starters Rashean Mathis and Chris Houston leaving their availability for the Green Bay contest in question, the next man up is Darius Slay

Thus far, the second-round pick from Mississippi State has not lived up to the billing. While he won the starting corner position during the preseason, Slay quickly lost that role to Mathis because of several bad plays. 

Slay did not play at all in the Week 3 win over Washington. Mathis and Houston both fared well, and Bill Bentley is right at home in the nickel slot role. 

Last week, injuries to both Mathis and Houston during the Chicago game forced Slay back onto the field. For the most part, he looked a lot better than he did in his earlier outings. 

The most notable improvement came in his patience. Let's look back to the Arizona game, where his impatience really cost the team. 

As the outside corner with no wideout on his side, Slay's responsibility is outside the hashes and deep. He must stick on the route that breaks outside, be it the tight end or the running back (circled). The linebacker has coverage on the inside route. 

 

As the tight end breaks inside, look at Slay's eyes and positioning. He is fixated on the tight end and never even sees Andre Ellington running free out of the backfield. Slay shows poor patience in letting the full play develop. 

Veteran corners can tell you this is a common mistake from when they first entered the league. There is a natural inclination to try to prove you belong, to not get beat right off the bat. Offenses know this too, and they try to exploit it.

That's exactly what Carson Palmer and the Cardinals did on that touchdown play. They preyed upon Slay's impatience and inexperience. 

Now look at a similar play from Chicago this past Sunday. Instead of overreacting to the initial moves, Slay stays disciplined. He trusts his eyes and also his speed. 

Chicago has 2nd-and-8 on this play, and Slay is once again isolated on the wideout. His responsibility on this play is everything to his right, as well as the immediate areas in front of and behind him. 

 

The Bears run wideout Earl Bennett (No. 80) on a clear-out route inside, which opens up the flat for Matt Forte (No. 22) out of the slot. Slay initially runs with Bennett.

 

Notice where his eyes are? Slay is showing good awareness and patience here. He's not overreacting to Bennett crossing inside, and the transition in coverage with the linebacker is seamless. 

In the Arizona game, Slay overran his responsibility inside and ignored his outside coverage. Here he shows trust in his teammates to carry out their roles and patience to not overplay the initial route. That is discipline, and that is progress. 

 

Slay quickly reacts to Forte flaring outside, but he doesn't rush up and leave himself vulnerable for an out-and-up move. Slay swoops in to make a sure tackle right after the catch to force a long third down. Even though Chicago got the completion, Slay made a strong play here. 

Later in the game, Slay was beaten for a touchdown. It looks ugly on the stat sheet, but this really wasn't a bad play from the rookie corner. 

 

Slay is lined up in a press-man look on Alshon Jeffery, and the duo is isolated to the short side of the field. The line of scrimmage is the Detroit 14-yard line. 

Immediately off the snap, Jeffery tries an inside stutter to give himself some room to the outside, but Slay does a good job in keeping track of his mark. He extends an arm and tries to use the proximity to the sideline to his advantage.

With the ball in the air, Slay quickly picks up on Jeffery's body language that something is coming. He turns his head and locates the ball, and he's in good position to either make a play on the ball or force Jeffery out of bounds before the wideout can secure the catch. 

Unfortunately, Slay gets outmuscled by the physical Jeffery, who has three inches and about 25 pounds on him. Even though Slay gets a hand on the ball in between Jeffery's hands as the two are landing, Jeffery has the hand strength to hang on and make a fantastic catch. 

Even though Slay wasn't perfect on this particular play, he forced the quarterback to make a perfect throw and the receiver to make a very difficult catch. Sometimes that's all a corner can do; those other guys are getting paid a lot of money for a reason, too. 

The very next play, however, demonstrated why Slay still has a ways to go. On the two-point conversion, Jeffery easily broke cleanly to the outside. Jay Cutler put the ball on his back shoulder, and Jeffery completed the conversion before Slay even knew the ball was there. 

Slay definitely showed improvement in the Bears game from his earlier efforts. That's good, because in Green Bay he faces perhaps the best quarterback in the game in Aaron Rodgers. His accuracy and decision-making are excellent. 

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Packers also have several talented receivers. Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb are all polished route-runners, and the Packers design plays to create space for them expertly. 

The Lions must hope that Slay gained much-needed confidence from his solid play in the Chicago game. He certainly has the physical tools to succeed. It's avoiding the mental mistakes that punctuated his earlier performances which is the key going forward. 

The potential is evident with Darius Slay. The rookie corner must continue to show patience and keep learning from his mistakes. I think he demonstrated those qualities while playing extensively in the Bears game. 

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