Niyo: Make no mistake, Lions’ ‘pitbull’ St. Brown a perfect fit in Detroit

Detroit News

Detroit — Everyone else wanted to talk about the big plays he made Sunday.

But Amon-Ra St. Brown couldn’t help himself. He wanted to talk about the one he didn’t make.

It was the last time his number was called on another record-setting Sunday for the Lions’ second-year receiver. And the way he saw it, it should’ve been the play that sealed a 36-27 victory over the Washington Commanders at Ford Field.

With less than 2 minutes to go in regulation and Detroit holding a two-score lead, head coach Dan Campbell opted against a field-goal try with the Lions facing a fourth-and-three from the Washington 33-yard line. Instead, Jared Goff dropped back to pass and floated a pass over the middle to St. Brown, who made a lunging grab before losing control when cornerback Kendall Fuller pried the football loose as they both went to the ground.

So instead of a victory formation, the Lions were forced to send their defense back out on the field for one more series. And St. Brown was forced to sit on the sideline, stewing.

“I’m kind of still mad about that one,” he grumbled, nearly an hour later. “Because that would’ve been game over for us.”

But it was over soon enough, anyway. And in the end, no one had played a bigger role in making sure this one went the Lions’ way than St. Brown. He didn’t just finish as the game’s leading receiver Sunday, with nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns. He also finished with a game-high 68 yards rushing, highlighted by arguably the biggest play of the day for either team late in the third quarter. (That’s the first time in franchise history a wideout has topped both categories in the same game.)

The right time

After a dominant first-half performance that saw the Lions jump out to a 22-0 lead — their biggest halftime lead since 2018 — the Commanders clawed their way back with a pair of touchdown drives that cut the lead to 22-15.

But that’s when Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson called a play he’d been eager to call all afternoon. All week, really. A “drive-starter” was how Campbell described it later, and as St. Brown would explain after the game, it’s a play the Lions had spent the entire first half setting up. Time and time again, Goff would tap his foot and send St. Brown in motion prior to the snap. Occasionally he’d go from one side of the formation to the other and back again.

“And I feel like as a defense, at some point, you don’t pay mind to it,” St. Brown said.

So it was at that point in the game that Johnson decided to trip the alarm. Goff set St. Brown in motion from left to right again, but this time he took the snap and made a lightning-quick handoff to St. Brown on a jet sweep, then faked a traditional handoff to running back Craig Reynolds, who sold it well as he went charging into the left side of the line.

“No one knew I had the ball,” St. Brown said. “I don’t even think the safety that was looking at me knew I had the ball. And all I hear from the defense is ‘Oh, (expletive)!’ from everywhere. And I knew at that point it was gonna be a big play.”

He knew it because wideout Quintez Cephus had sealed the edge with a perfect block on cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, leaving acres of open field in front of St. Brown as he raced down the sideline. St-Juste finally caught him after a 58-yard gain, which, of course, left St. Brown fuming, even though the Lions would score what proved to be the winning touchdown three plays later on a terrific 22-yard catch-and-run by D’Andre Swift.

“I blame the Jumbotron for me getting caught,” St. Brown laughed, noting he’d been fooled by the half-second delay on the giant scoreboard in the east end zone.

Before he could high-step to avoid St-Juste’s diving tackle attempt, he said, “I was already tackled.”

Still, he couldn’t help rave about the call, and specifically the coach who’d made it. And why not? Johnson’s debut as a first-time play-caller in the NFL is off to a rousing start this fall. The Lions’ offense has put up nearly 70 points through two games and, to a man, they’re convinced they’ve probably left at least 30 more out there, between a handful of dropped passes and some errant throws.

“I tell everyone: I think he’s one of the best coaches I’ve been around,” said St. Brown, whose production escalated dramatically as a rookie when Johnson was elevated to pass-game coordinator midway through last season. “He has that young mind. He’s open to new ideas. He puts all of us in the right position to make plays.”

But in St. Brown’s case, Johnson also knows what all the Lions’ coaches do by now: Whenever they call his number, he will make the play.

“When he makes a mistake, it’s like, ‘Huh?’” said Goff, who finished 20-of-34 for 256 yards and four touchdowns without an interception Sunday. “He’s mistake-free, pretty much.”

‘Steady as a rock’

Yeah, pretty much, which is uncanny when you consider Sunday’s game was only the 12th NFL start for the former fourth-round pick. Even more remarkable: This game marked his sixth in a row with at least eight receptions and a touchdown, a new NFL record. (St. Brown’s streak of eight games with eight or more catches is now tied for the all-time best with Michael Thomas and Antonio Brown.)

“He’s as steady as they come, steady as a rock,” Campbell said. “You can always depend on what he’s gonna bring every day. Not just on Sunday, but on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He’s been that way since he walked in the door as a rookie.”

And for that, no one is more thankful than Goff, who marvels at the consistency like everyone else but mostly enjoys the comfort that gives him as the Lions’ quarterback.

“He’s a very friendly target, is the best way to describe it,” Goff said, before explaining some of the ways that shows up on the field.

Like the way St. Brown always seems to come back to the ball. Or the way drives hard out of his break to keep defenders from making their own break on Goff’s throws. It’s the way he catches it away from his body, too, a skill honed daily on the JUGS machine when he takes his customary 202 reps after practice. It’s the precision of his routes, certainly, but also the effort he puts into his run blocking. (Campbell calls him a “pitbull that plays receiver,” and also ‘the O-linemen’s best friend.”) It’s the understanding of each play design, but also of the various coverages defenses show.

“Little things,” Goff says, “that typically you can’t teach.”

And what we’re all learning with each passing week is just what a catch the Lions have here. A perfectionist, yes. But also a perfect fit for this team. Tough but talented, gritty and dependable. A second-year player that acts like a 10-year vet, and a hot hand that’s pretty good at playing it cool.

When asked Sunday if the record he’d just shattered was a streak or something we should expect every week, St. Brown just smiled and replied, “That’s a good question. We’ll see.”

But I think we already know the answer: What we’ve seen from St. Brown is exactly what the Lions will keep getting.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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