Detroit Lions are winning and ‘bulldog’ Amon-Ra St. Brown is an understated reason why

Detroit Free Press

Fans serenaded Jameson Williams with chants of, “We want Jamo,” in his NFL debut, and Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell gave DJ Chark a well-deserved game ball for his season-high five-catch, 98-yard performance against his old team.

Chark played his best game as a Lion in Sunday’s 40-14 blowout of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Williams’ return from a torn ACL was the newsiest news of the day.

But in a game where Lions’ receivers took center stage as they won for the fourth time in five weeks, it was a third still-not-heralded-enough pass catcher who was the day’s biggest star.

Amon-Ra St. Brown caught 11 of the 12 passes thrown his way Sunday for 114 yards. He converted all four of his third down targets and scored two touchdowns on pristine routes in the red zone. He took a brutal shot to the ribs in the third quarter, sat out one play, then returned to convert a third-and-9 two snaps later that reminded everyone why, 12 games into the season, he is the Lions’ unquestioned MVP.

“He’s really good,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said Sunday. “He’s so tough and he’s got great hands. Even the first one that could have been picked off that got tipped up in the air, for him to come down with that, stuff like that gives you so much confidence as a quarterback. I threw that ball over the middle to him, makes the catch and gets blasted and gets up. It’s just, he’s a stud, he’s a bulldog and a guy that I’m fortunate to play with and hope to play with him for a long time.”

Part security blanket, part playmaker, St. Brown is one of the most unique talents in the NFL.

More:Detroit Lions stock watch: D’Andre Swift, DJ Chark re-emerge, but playoff hopes take hit

He doesn’t have Tyreek Hill’s speed or DK Metcalf’s size, but he has a killer instinct, knack for getting open and refined receiving palette that put him above the vast majority of his peers.

St. Brown is tied for seventh in the NFL in receptions despite missing one game and most of two others with injuries. He sprained his ankle in the Lions’ Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, sat out the next week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, played sparingly in a Week 5 loss to the New England Patriots because of his ankle injury and was removed in the first quarter of the Lions’ next game, a loss to the Dallas Cowboys after the bye, with concussion-like symptoms.

The Lions opened the season 1-6, a start that could end up costing them a playoff spot, and it’s not a stretch to say things might have been different had St. Brown stayed healthy.

The Lions led most of the game against the Vikings, and fell apart only in the final minutes after Campbell opted against trying to convert a fourth-and-4 on Minnesota’s side of the field. A day later, he acknowledged his team’s injury situation – D’Andre Swift also suffered a shoulder injury that game – was a factor in his decision to attempt a long field goal.

Against the Patriots, when the Lions’ high-scoring offense was shut out and set an NFL record for fourth down futility (0 for 6), St. Brown limped through 21 mostly ineffective snaps as essentially the Lions’ fourth receiver.

And two weeks later against the Cowboys, St. Brown was in concussion protocol in the locker room while Goff and the offense were shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers.

In the past five games, St. Brown has led the Lions – 4-1 and those contests – in targets, receptions and receiving yards each week. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson seemingly designs every third down with St. Brown in mind, and opponents are having a hard time stopping him even when they know the ball is coming his way.

“He’s incredible,” Goff said. “He’s as good a player that I’ve been around and does everything. In the run game, the pass game. I’ve spoken to what he’s done in the pass game for us obviously with making those catches he made throughout the game, but in the run game, too, some of those blocks he’s making that may not show up on the highlight reel are real deal blocking safeties, blocking linebackers. He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he sticks his nose in there and makes those blocks for us.”

St. Brown’s biggest catch Sunday was his first, a 12-yard grab on third-and-7 at the Jacksonville 13-yard line that was a whisker from going the other way.

Goff made his poorest throw of the day, trying to sneak a quick slant through a tiny window near the goal line. The pass deflected off Jaguars cornerback Darious Williams’ hands and St. Brown showed off his exceptional hand-eye coordination, hauling in the ball about the same time he got blasted by safety Andrew Wingard.

In a 40-14 rout, it’s tough to say there was a turning point, but that certainly was a critical play early in the game.

“I’ve been on the wrong side of enough of those to get one of them my way so it was great, and again, catches like that build confidence from me to want to throw him the ball over the middle when it’s going to be tight again,” Goff said. “I can’t speak enough to how confident I feel throwing him the ball right now and how important he is to our team.”

No single player has been more important to the Lions’ success so far than St. Brown, and no player will be the rest of the season.

Not Chark and his game ball as he gets back to better health – he missed six games with ankle soreness at a time that also coincided with the Lions’ struggles – and not Williams, the fan favorite, and his dazzling speed.

Twenty-eight games into his NFL career, St. Brown already is one of the best receivers in the league.

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

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