Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has an appreciation for the slot receiver position.
That's certainly been evident by the way Lions slot receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has taken off ever since Johnson was elevated to pass game coordinator midway through last year, and then offensive coordinator this offseason.
St. Brown has 68 catches for 740 yards and nine total touchdowns dating back to Week 12 of last season. The Rams' Cooper Kupp is the only receiver in the NFL with more catches (77) over that span. St. Brown is looking to break the NFL record he's currently tied Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas with by catching at least eight passes in his ninth straight game Sunday in Minnesota.
Johnson admits his admiration for the slot receiver position started when he was an assistant receivers coach in Miami and worked with then Dolphins receiver and current Saint, Jarvis Landry, who caught 206 passes for 2,123 yards and 13 touchdowns over the two-year stretch Johnson was the assistant receivers coach.
"I would just say just from my personal history, I've been around a lot of really good coaches that have highlighted that slot receiver position," Johnson said Thursday. "Dating back to Miami, we drafted Jarvis Landry and he ended up – I want to say his first four years in the league, he ended up leading the league in receptions. Like it was historical how many catches he caught his first four years in the NFL."
Johnson said his time in Miami working with Landry showed him how creative teams can be with a good slot receiver and how many different ways a good offensive mind can get that player the football.
"I think it's really hard to eliminate a slot receiver from a game plan," Johnson said. "And then, when you have a guy as talented as Saint it really opens a lot of windows and opportunities for directions we can go.
"So, it's really a testament to him because he's such a smart player that we can put him in – experiment with things that he's never tried before necessarily and yet he can still apply it on first try. So, it's pretty cool to see."
St. Brown caught nine passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns, and had two rushes for 68 yards Sunday, including a big 58-yard run on a jet sweep late in the third quarter after Washington had pulled within one score. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for that performance.
Just 19 games into his career, is it too early to think of St. Brown as one of the top receivers in the game already? He doesn't think so.
"I feel that way," St. Brown said this week.
In four career games against the Lions, Vikings All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson has 30 receptions for 503 yards and a score. He's certainly been known to wreck a game. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will know where Jefferson is at all times Sunday.
After catching nine passes for 184 yards and two scores in a Week 1 win over Green Bay, Jefferson had six grabs for just 48 yards in a loss to Philadelphia last week.
The question in Minnesota this week has been how do they get their offense back on track after scoring just seven points last week? Getting running back Dalvin Cook more involved was a major talking point, but so was getting the ball to their top weapon on offense, Jefferson.
"He just plays a complete game," Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah said Thursday about Jefferson. "I think he keeps you honest. And somebody you have to be really disciplined against."
Sacks are the flashy stat for defensive linemen. It's why defensive ends and edge rushers get the big bucks. But Detroit was much better last week defending the run against the Commanders, and Glenn gives a lot of credit to some of the big guys in the middle, particularly Alim McNeill, Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones. He was asked specifically about the job Buggs and Jones have done through two games.
"It was a joy to watch those two guys play in this game because I'll tell you what when you have guys like that, that can take three or four gaps it's pretty huge for your defense," Glenn said. "And I will tell you the unsung heroes because for Aidan (Hutchinson) and Charles (Harris) to get what they got, they couldn't have gotten them without those guys in the middle. So, you guys give those guys some love, now. You don't write about them enough."
This will be another big week for those guys in the middle to try and contain Cook and the Vikings' rushing attack.