Best pest: Detroit Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown’s explosion begins with blocking prowess

Detroit Free Press

It’s the NFL version of “uncle,” and Amon-Ra St. Brown has heard it a time or two on the field.

“When you block hard almost every play, obviously some defenders, they get kind of mad,” St. Brown said this week. “Some guys, they’ll be smart and they’ll be like, ‘You’re good, you’re good.’ Cause they don’t want me to keep going hard. But I just do the same thing.”

Fifteen games into his rookie season, St. Brown has emerged as the Detroit Lions’ No. 1 receiver — and Public Enemy No. 1 for opposing teams.

He leads the Lions in receptions (74) and receiving yards (692). He is the reigning NFC Offensive Rookie of the Month. And heading into the Lions’ road finale Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, he unofficially has gotten under the skin of more defensive backs than any receiver in the league.

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A relentless blocker who has drawn comparisons to former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward, St. Brown said defenders occasionally “try to get me to ease up” on the field. When they do, they’re usually met with a knowing stare.

“I don’t do talk unless I’m spoken to or he gives me a reason to say something,” St. Brown said. “But I go out there, I’m quiet, I block hard, and I think the defenders know what’s up at this point.”

St. Brown credits his blocking prowess to his college receivers coach Keary Colbert, a one-time Lions receiver and former teammate of Lions coach Dan Campbell. And his willingness to do the little things at the position is a big reason why his role has evolved well beyond what even the Lions thought it would be when they made him a fourth-round pick out of USC.

Ticketed for slot receiver duties at the start of the season, St. Brown has thrived as the Lions have heaped more responsibilities on his plate.

He plays both inside and outside receiver. He lines up occasionally in the backfield. And in recent weeks, he has run more vertical routes downfield.

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“He blocks and we’ve made it known that if you’re a receiver in this offense and you block, you will get targets,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “And he’s one of the best blocking guys on our football team.”

Asked why blocking correlates to getting more chances to catch the football, Lynn said it speaks to the unselfishness of the player.

“You’d be surprised how many quality receivers that don’t do that,” he said. “And then you want to reward a guy that does that, but also at the same time, when you can go in there and block safeties the way he does, it opens you up in the run game because they come downhill and you’re running by them, or you’re running out-breaking from them. So it goes hand-in-hand and that’s just one of the ways to get a receiver more involved is just tell him, ‘If you block, we’ll target you.’”

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The Lions have targeted St. Brown a hefty 46 times the past four games.

He caught a season-high 10 passes for 86 yards in the Lions’ Week 13 win over the Minnesota Vikings, when he had four receptions on the Lions’ game-winning drive, including a walk-off 11-yard touchdown as time expired.

He followed that up with an eight-catch, 73-yard performance on an otherwise sluggish offensive day against the Denver Broncos. And he had at least 90 yards receiving each of the past two weeks in games against the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons.

In the Lions’ Week 15 upset of the Cardinals, St. Brown caught a career-long 37-yard touchdown pass after he feigned a block at the line of scrimmage and leaked out the back side of an unsuspecting defense.

“We’ve seen him continually take off in terms of his play and not just in the passing game,” Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El said. “You’ve seen what he’s done in the run game in terms of blocking. He’s got better in his route running and being more defined in it. And then when you do that, obviously to block the way you block, you are deserving of some more opportunities, and he’s been taking advantage of it.”

Randle El proudly calls St. Brown a pest of a player, noting his ability to fluster opponents not just with his tenacious blocking but with the possibilities he makes team defend.

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“As a wide receiver, nobody’s expecting you to do that,” Randle El said. “They’re expecting you to go to catch the ball, hand the ball back to the ref. Like nobody expects you to hit them in the mouth and go after them play after play. And it gets to them. It gets to bothering them. Now, they don’t know if you’re really coming off the ball, are you getting ready to smack me in my mouth or are you going to run a route? So use it to your advantage and it’s been good to see him do that.”

St. Brown, who broke Jahvid Best’s Lions record for most receptions by a rookie with his eight-catch, 90-yard game against the Cardinals, has remained unfazed by his success.

He said he’s motivated by a draft-day slide that saw 16 receivers picked in front of him and not surprised at all by what he has achieved on the field.

“I know my potential,” he said. “I know what I can do and I’m excited to keep going and be consistent.”

Randle El said the next evolution in St. Brown’s game is to become better at identifying coverages and molding his routes to what he sees defensively.

If that happens, Lynn said there is no limit to what St. Brown can accomplish.

“I never want to label a guy and say what he can or he can’t do, especially a rookie,” Lynn said. “He’s got so much more to learn and so much more development and growth, and you’re seeing some positive results right now. So where he can go with his game, who knows? But yeah, I do think he is trending in the right direction and he can be whatever he wants to be.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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