‘Stud’ Amon-Ra St. Brown showing Lions skills beyond years, projections

Detroit News

Detroit  — Amon-Ra St. Brown knew he was supposed to be a better salesman.

On the first play of the second quarter in just about the last thing anyone expected to see Sunday at Ford Field — a stunning 30-12 victory for the Lions over the Arizona Cardinals — Detroit’s rookie wide receiver was running a “choice” route.

It’s the kind of route you dial up for a savvy veteran, a reliable target who knows how to read coverages and find the soft spots in a defense. And odd as it might sound, that’s exactly what St. Brown has become just 14 games into his NFL career with the Lions.

“Yeah, he’s a stud,” quarterback Jared Goff said after turning in a mostly flawless performance to notch the Lions’ second win of the season. “He’s a stud. I’ll say it again: He’s a stud. We’ve known it since training camp.”

But over the last month or so, everyone is starting to get a glimpse of what Goff’s talking about. Everyone is starting to understand general manager Brad Holmes might’ve made a smart choice after waiting until the third day of the NFL Draft to snag a receiver.

For subscribers: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: In pulling upset, Detroit passes this test with flying colors

And Sunday, the rookie fourth-round pick proved he’s ready for more — maybe a lot more — while leading the Lions with eight receptions for 90 yards and sparking the upset win with a 37-yard touchdown midway through the first half.

That touchdown came on a play the Lions’ installed just this past week, St. Brown said. And Sunday it came just when the home team had the visitors reeling.

The Cardinals, who owned the best record in the NFC, were coming in off a short week after a painful loss at home to Matthew Stafford and the division-rival Rams on Monday night.

The Lions opened the game with a nearly 9-minute drive that ended with a short field goal. Then, after a quick three-and-out for Kyler Murray and the Cardinals’ high-powered offense, the Lions put together another drive starting from their own 7-yard line.

And following a big gain from running back Craig Reynolds that pushed the ball across midfield, it was time for St. Brown to make a play again.

“Basically a little sneak,” is how he’d describe it later. But what it was a little window into that rapport he has built already with Goff, and the confidence he has earned from the coaching staff.

The stat sheet bears that out: St. Brown has 26 catches on 35 targets over Detroit’s last three games. But so does the play design on what was the longest play from scrimmage by either team in Sunday’s game.

St. Brown lines up in the right slot, and initially acts like he’s blocking down on the edge rusher, which in this case was linebacker Isaiah Simmons. Meanwhile Goff fakes a play-action handoff to Reynolds, who then runs a short route out in the flat. St. Brown then drags across the field while against the zone coverage, before making his break downfield. And in this instance, he left a little early, which was just as well, because Goff felt the pressure from Simmons and uncorked a throw before he was ready.

“That was really impressive,” said St. Brown, who easily sprinted past the two linebackers in coverage — ex-Lion Devon Kennard and Jordan Hicks — and caught a perfect ball in stride on his way to the corner of the end zone. “I didn’t know (Goff) was actually under that much duress until after I came back to the sideline. They’re like, ‘You’re supposed to hold it a little longer.’ But I was ready to try and score.”

And Goff was more than ready to take him up on the offer, something he’s doing more and more in the back half of this trying season for the Lions.

It was St. Brown, of course, that Goff found in the end zone for the game-winner a few weeks ago against the Vikings. And it’s the rookie that Goff keeps looking for in gotta-have-it moments — nearly half of his 11 targets Sunday came on third or fourth down.

“Finally getting him the ball quite a bit now,” Goff said Sunday. “I thought the route on the touchdown was just so perfect. It’s such a unique route that only some guys can run and you have to have a good feel for the space and the game. And he has all that. We had him on a few choice routes today. We’re constantly talking on the sidelines, he’s really starting to learn, he’s really starting to pick it up and understand coverage and where the holes are and it’s really fun to play with him.”

St. Brown now ranks second among all NFL rookies with 65 receptions this season — he broke the Lions’ rookie record held by Jahvid Best — and fifth in receiving yards. The top four, including Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, all were top-10 draft picks back in April. St. Brown was the 17th receiver selected, and 112th player overall to go off the board, seven picks into the fourth round.

And while he was penciled in as the Lions’ No. 3 receiver way back in August, his role has expanded out of necessity this season. The Lions’ presumptive top two receivers —Tyrell Williams and Breshaud Perriman — both were gone by the end of the season opener, and the lone returning wideout on the roster, Quintez Cephus, was done after Week 5.

So for a position group that began the season as arguably the biggest question mark on a roster full of them, this late-season surge is “really fulfilling,” St. Brown said.

“I don’t really read all the media, but obviously you hear some of it,” the rookie said. “You can’t get away from it: ‘The receiving corps was a problem … This, that and the other.’ But we knew as a group we can play.”

And make some plays, as Josh Reynolds, the mid-November waiver claim, has done in recent weeks, reunited with his former quarterback from Los Angeles. Or as Kalif Raymond has done at times as well.

No one has done it more lately than St. Brown, though, whether it’s lining up as the lone man in the backfield, as he did Sunday, getting his first carry of the season, or working out of the slot as a possession receiver — the kind of security blanket that, as Goff noted this week, “is a nice thing for a quarterback to have.”

“He’s coming into his own,” said cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who is enjoying a breakout season himself, grabbing his sixth interception of the season Sunday. “I know he’s young. I know he’s a rookie. But they trust him like any other vet on our team. They’re putting him in positions to make plays and he’s making them. That’s really what it comes down to.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo

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