Whether or not the Lions lose next week, a Week 17 victory guarantees them a division crown. Of course, that’s easier said than done as the venue for that vaunted matchup is Lambeau Field – a place where the Lions haven't won in 23 years.
A lot has happened since that December 15th, 1991 victory for the Lions - their last in Lambeau. There’s been four US presidents, the Packers have appeared in three Super Bowls, the Lions have appeared in 7 playoff games (yes, that’s how long ago it was) and Darius Slay celebrated 23 Birthdays, including his first one.
Slay, the Lions 23-year-old sophomore cornerback, is an epitome of why the Lions just might have a chance to end their Wisconsin woes this year.
His growth is among the top contributors to the Lions resurgence on defense and the defense is the reason they have a chance to make the playoffs this year.
Ironically, Slay didn’t even know what Lambeau field was when he arrived in Detroit.
“I knew what a ‘Lambo’ was, but I didn’t know it was Green Bay’s stadium,” said Slay during training camp last year, explaining that the term meant Lamborghini to him.
Of course, a year and a half later, Slay’s well aware of Green Bay’s home field’s name. That’s not the only knowledge the young corner has gained since then. He’s also learned how to play within the Lions defensive scheme and make plays when they are there to be made.
“I’m just way more confident and trusting in myself,” said Slay. “I ain’t really worried about a lot of stuff. Just playing my game and knowing I got the ability to make the plays I make and I’m just going to continue to do that.”
Slay was a big reason why the Lions pulled off a comeback win against the Minnesota Vikings today. Detroit got off to a slow start and wound up trailing by two touchdowns in the second quarter while the Vikings were driving, poised to put more points on the board.
Then, before a third-and-eight at center field, safety Glover Quin momentarily ran towards Slay with some quick words of wisdom before the ball was snapped.
“He’s just telling (me) that we’re the best defense, let’s go out here and make plays,” recounted Slay of Quin’s brief words. “Just go out here and complete. It wasn’t nothing schematic, we were trusting our game plan, we didn’t need to switch nothing up, because we trusted our technique and what we do best. We knew we had to just do our job and compete.”
On that play, Slay maintained tight coverage on his assignment and allowed Quin to float and play ball hawk. When Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater misfired, he was there to haul in the interception. Two plays later, the Lions cut the Vikings lead in half.
On the next offensive series, it was Slay coming up with the big play, securing another Bridgewater misfire simply by being in the right place at the right time.
“I just played my ball, trusted my technique and made a play on the ball,” said Slay.
The play was reviewed by the booth, as there was some doubt on whether or not possession was maintained during the interception. The always confident Slay, however, wasn’t sweating on the sidelines.
“I knew I caught that, (there) wasn’t no doubt,” he said. “I got hands. The best hands.”
Those two plays enabled the Lions to keep the game close after a slow start and eventually seal the victory in the fourth quarter.
“We had some (adversity) early on in the game and a great play by Glover, which is expected, and then Slay making a heck of a play to spark us," said saftey James Ihedigbo. "We kind of didn’t look back from that point.”
The Vikings scored no more points after Slay’s interception, with the cornerback contributing in several facets of the game.
Slay ended up with four tackles, two pass defenses and an interception but made several crucial plays beyond that – including a potential touchdown-saving tackle on special teams when Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was running in the open field, late in the game, threatening to score on a kickoff return.
“Oh man, he’s probably one of the most dynamic returners,” said Slay, who chased the speedy Patterson down for the tackle. “I was like ‘damn, I got to tackle him in the open field. You know, that’s why they put me there, to make that play and I just made it.”
Beyond the stat sheet, Slay showed growth in his inter-game adjustments and recognition. Earlier in the game, Slay was matched up with Vikings running back Matt Asiata on the outside a few times. The power-back was never going to blow by Slay, but did have enough of a weight advantage to gain several extra yards after contact. Late in the game, with the Vikings needing to make a play, Slay was lined up with Asiata again and did some thinking.
He realized that he could move into the slot and cover wide receiver Jarius Wright, who had done some damage to the Lions with his speed earlier in the game, and made the call on an adjustment.
“It’s just the fact that it was a clutch moment and I ain’t want (Ihedigbo) to be on number 17 because I know he’s pretty fast,” said Slay. “So, I was like ‘man, I’m going to put pressure on me, I’m going to get 17 in the slot’. Just make it easy for (Ihedigbo), I’m here to help my teammate. It’s what the best move was.”
Slay's growth has been essential to this defense and it’s evident in his play and decision making. He represents the hope the Lions have in ending their Lambeau drought and securing their first division title since 1994.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t know the name of his biggest division rival’s home stadium a year ago.