As Joe Flacco scanned the field in the final seconds of Sunday’s 29-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings, he was not thinking about the pedigrees or the paychecks of the pass-catchers he could potentially throw to. If he did, he might have targeted Torrey Smith, the former second-round pick who is leading the team in receptions, or Ray Rice, the high-paid former Pro Bowl running back who had lined up in the backfield.
No, in one of the biggest moments of the season, Flacco threw it up to the open guy -- who just so happened to be an undrafted rookie free agent out of Georgia who was a relative unknown six months ago.
Asked Wednesday about throwing to an undrafted rookie in that critical spot, Flacco responded, “I’m not thinking back there, ‘Who is in this position? Can I trust this guy?’ If I was thinking that, if that was going through my head, I’d have all the confidence in the world and he’d be a guy that I’d pick out. He is a great football player. He has got a lot of things going for him, and he’s getting better and better each week.”
While Brown has been learning on the fly this season, the rookie wide receiver has been earning the trust of his quarterback. Brown has rewarded Flacco for it, at least in the end zone, where he has caught all four passes Flacco has thrown to him this season. As I wrote Wednesday morning, Brown leads the team in end-zone catches.
Because of his red-zone prowess, Brown, who at 6-foot-5 is the team’s tallest wide receiver, is tied for the NFL lead among rookies with six touchdown receptions.
“He’s a big, strong guy with body control and catch radius,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Joe can put the ball around him, and he can make an adjustment and go make the catch, and that’s really valuable in the red zone.”
Brown’s production outside of the red zone has been sporadic. He had seven catches for 92 yards against the Vikings, but those were more than his previous three games combined. On the season, Brown has 36 catches for 412 yards, putting him among the top 10 rookies but not in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
His production has been affected by the emergence of wide receiver Jacoby Jones, whose presence on the outside has pushed Brown into the slot more frequently.
Brown has run 51.8 percent of his routes out of the slot this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and four of his touchdowns, including Sunday's game-winner, came when he lined up as a slot receiver. Harbaugh said that Brown, who played in the slot a fair amount at Georgia, has showed more polish as a route-runner inside.
“I also think he can be a pretty good route-runner outside,” Harbaugh added. “That’s a little tougher, that’s something that takes a little more time to develop. But he’s working hard on that stuff also.”
The young wide receiver still has a lot of room to grow, but when Flacco looks Brown’s way in games, as he did Sunday, he doesn’t see an unknown rookie anymore.
“You’re always getting better, and you’re always adjusting,” Flacco said. “There’s so much that goes on in this league that you’re always kind of adapting and learning. When you’ve been involved in some of the games that he’s been in, and you’ve handled it the way he’s handled it, you can’t really look at him as a rookie anymore.”