By: Will Burchfield
Through the Lions’ first four games, opposing quarterbacks had a 24.4 passer rating when targeting Darius Slay.
Cam Newton either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
With the help of Kelvin Benjamin, Newton lit up Slay for a 155.6 passer rating on Sunday in the Panthers’ 27-24 win.
“Cam was playing a good game,” Slay said. “He had them rolling.”
It was a day in which the boisterous, finger-wagging Slay was knocked down to size. By Monday afternoon, though, it was clear he had turned the page.
“It’s only about one or two plays out there that we could have back and it would be a dominant game. But tip our hats off to them. They made great calls against our calls, made plays when plays needed to be made,” Slay said.
To be fair, the Lions’ defense was victimized by more than “one or two plays.” Slay himself was involved in three that had dire ramifications, including the game-sealing play.
The first one was a 31-yard touchdown reception that put the Panthers up 24-10 early in the second half. Benjamin, who’s not known for being a speed demon, got behind Slay on a go route and then reeled in a terrific pass from Newton in the back corner of the end zone.
Slay felt he had pretty good coverage on Benjamin despite the result.
“I did, but perfect ball, big guy, long guy, 6’5. He can stretch and go get that. A guy that’s 6-foot can’t stretch that far to get that ball because (Benjamin) tip-toed that thing in there pretty nice. It was a great play by Cam, great catch by Benjamin. I tip my hat off to him. I just know I have to be in a better position next time,” said Slay.
Benjamin’s second key play against Slay was the aforementioned catch that sealed the game. On third and nine from the Panthers’ 24-yard line with 2:30 to play, Newton connected with Benjamin on a slant route for a 17-yard gain. In Slay’s mind, there was little he could do.
“You seen the route, man, he kind of big-boy’d me a little bit. I don’t want to say it, but he kind of big-boy’d me a little bit and just got me out of the way. He’s 6’5, 260, maybe, and I’m just clearing 6’1, 190. That’s just a big guy,” said Slay.
After the catch, Slay tossed up his arms as if he was looking for a penalty or expecting help in coverage.
“I ain’t looking for nothing. I’m just like, man, I don’t know what else I can do with this big guy here, just moving me out of the way in where he wants to get,” said Slay. “He was a tough guy. Ain’t even tough to guard, just hard to get around his body because I’m not a bigger frame myself. I guess he kind of used his basketball skills and started boxing me out everywhere.”
Slay was also complicit in a 57-yard reception by tight end Ed Dickson, who torched the Lions for 175 yards. On third and one from their own 34, the Panthers ran a play-action pass that fooled just about every defensive player on the field, leaving Dickson wide open on the back side for a long catch and run.
Slay was one of at least four Lions to bite on the fake. He said the coaches in the booth saw something different than the players on the field, leading to a defensive misalignment.
“It just looked that different from upstairs than what we saw downstairs. It’s not a wrong call, it’s just a wrong alignment,” said Slay. “We got it corrected now.”
He added, “A play like that will never happen again because we have an understanding of it, and that’s what we’re going to go by.”
Slay shadowed Benjamin for much of the afternoon, and the 6’5, 240-pound receiver won the battle. In a season in which Slay has covered the likes of Julio Jones and Odell Beckham, it was Benjamin who appeared to be his toughest matchup.
Slay didn’t see it that way.
“I wouldn’t say it was a tough one because I was there on every play. It was only but two plays that he had on me, they both were just critical,” said Slay. “He made big-time plays at the big-time moments, but through the whole game process I think I did a real damn good job. It was just two plays, and that’s (on) me. I have to be better on that.”