Allen Park — It’s been quite a month for Detroit Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. With at least eight receptions in the past three games, he’s already has surpassed running back Jahvid Best to become the franchise’s record holder for receptions in a rookie season.
And on Wednesday, St. Brown got some lofty praise from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn in the form of a comparison to a multi-time All-Pro at the position.
“He’s his own kind of guy, but there are also other players that he reminds me of,” Lynn said. “I’m just trying to think of my man in Pittsburgh right now — Hines Ward. Oh my goodness, just the way he blocks and Hines was so crafty with his footwork and Saint is learning when to be crafty and when not to be. So, that would be the first comparison I would make.”
Like St. Brown, Ward was a mid-round selection, going in the back half of the third round of the 1998 draft. The future Super Bowl MVP didn’t get off to quite the same start to his career, catching just 15 passes as a rookie, but his reputation for being willing to do the dirty work saw those opportunities rapidly increase, leading to four consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 2001-04.
“With Saint (St. Brown), he’s a fast learner,” Lynn said. “He picked up on it pretty quick and he studies the game. He studies other receivers. He’s coming along just fine.”
Focused on the present
Lynn’s future with the franchise figures to be a hot topic as the season winds down. Brought in to serve as the primary play-caller on offense, he had those duties stripped last month by coach Dan Campbell.
And with the growing voice of tight ends coach Ben Johnson in the passing game, combined with the fact the Lions have had two of their better offensive outputs the past three weeks, signs point to Lynn not moving back into a play-calling role any time soon.
“You know, you’re doing everything but calling plays,” Lynn said about his current role. “You’re the coordinator, but you’re just not calling it on game day. And some of the plays, you do call. The head coach still asks for your advice on this and that. It’s different. It’s not the role that I came here for, but it’s still a role and we’re still trying to help the Lions win football games.”
Asked what assurances he’d want to remain on staff beyond this year, Lynn opted not to look that far into the future.
“You’re talking about next year,” Lynn said. “I’m just trying to get through the day. I really focus on staying in the present and trying to help Dan Campbell and this offense as much as I can. If I do that, next year will take care of itself. We’ll figure that out when the time comes.”
Before coming to Detroit, Lynn spent four seasons as the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, amassing a 33-31 record with one playoff appearance. He’s said before, and echoed Wednesday that he’d love to be a head coach again if the opportunity presents itself. Then again, he reminded reporters that thinking about a hypothetical future was only a distraction from performing his current job to the best of his ability.
“It’s just best to stay in the present,” Lynn said.
Explaining canceled interview
When searching for the franchise’s next head coach this past offseason, the Lions took a long look at Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who ended up taking the Falcons job.
Smith was one of a small number of candidates the Lions invited for a second interview, but after initially accepting the opportunity, he eventually pulled his name from consideration.
On Wednesday, ahead of Sunday’s game between the two teams, he explained why he didn’t talk to the Lions a second time.
“I was very grateful for the opportunity to talk to the Lions,” Smith said. “I did the interview on Zoom. Loved the interview, and just where I was during that process, I was further along with Atlanta.
“It’s nothing against Detroit,” Smith said. “I have no idea what their plan really was after that, just once Atlanta offered me the job, that’s what I was focused on and I took it. It really wasn’t —I guess you could print it that way, ‘canceled’ — but that wasn’t the intention at all. I loved talking to the Lions.
Smith said what he learned from his initial conversation with the Lions is they had “really good people at the top.” The organization’s interview team consisted of owner Sheila Ford Hamp, president Rod Wood, special advisor Chris Spielman and vice president of football administration Mike Disner.
A short time after Smith pulled out, the Lions landed on Campbell to lead the organization. Smith said he doesn’t know Campbell as well as Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, who worked with the Lions coach the past five years in New Orleans, but the Falcons’ first-year coach sees similarities in their approaches.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for him,” Smith said. “I appreciate what he’s trying to build up there. Similar mindset.”
Getting a hold on the role
While laboring through the 2020 season, former Lions kicker Matt Prater would never blame anyone but himself for his struggles. But ahead of last week’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals — where Prater is now playing and appears back to his normal self — Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp suggested there were other factors at play that caused the dip in Prater’s typical consistency.
And while no one has directly said first-year holder Jack Fox was part of Prater’s issues, it’s a reasonable conclusion to reach, particularly after Fipp praised the improvements Fox has made in his second season on the job.
“I think holding goes a little bit unnoticed,” Fipp said. “I think some of the low numbers on field goals is probably due to a lot of new punters are punting in this league — there’s a lot of young punters. Those guys don’t come in as the best holders. He’s taken a lot of time and energy to make himself a great player, which is really unselfish by him. He spends a lot of time on the JUGGS machine in here, just does a lot of things that go unnoticed.”
Like a quarterback facing a blitz, a holder has to have a sharp mental clock. As Fipp explains it, a holder has 1.3 seconds from snap to placement to get the ball down on an exact spot, tilted at the kicker’s preferred angle with the laces facing out. And while that might be easy to do when the snap is perfect, the execution has to be equally adept when the ball comes in high, low or wide of where it’s supposed to be.
“What I say to these guys all the time is anybody can play a perfect play,” Fipp said. “Kickers in college can do that, and high school (kickers) can do that. But when you’re in the National Football League, when somethings a little off and a little astray, you gotta still be able to execute and get the job done.
“That really to me is what separates the guys who are really good players and the guys who, you know, they’re only as good as the guys around them,” Fipp said. “You’re looking for the guys who can make everybody better. If it’s a bad snap, it doesn’t phase him. If it’s a bad hold, it doesn’t phase him.”
The Lions remained without cornerback Amani Oruwariye (thumb) and inside linebacker Josh Woods (neck), but outside linebacker Julian Okwara (ankle) returned to practice for the first time in three weeks.