There is no archival footage of the first time Orlando Brown Jr. really put a defender on his fanny, which is a shame. Brown’s retelling of the pancake block lends the play an apocryphal quality. Even he cops to being fuzzy on the specifics of just how far downfield he bulldozed this poor eighth-grader nearly a decade ago.
It felt like 20 yards, he said Thursday. Probably, it was more like 6. But this defensive tackle was a big boy — maybe 6 feet 5, 380 pounds. Only Brown, the son of “Zeus” himself, then tipping the scales at over 400 pounds, loomed larger on the St. John’s College High School (D.C.) football field that day. It’s fair to wonder whether the Grassroots Youth Football League had ever seen such a titanic clash of middle-schoolers. Or a more body-flattening, spirit-crushing climax.
“He just fell. I fell on him,” the Ravens rookie recalled Thursday. “He never came back in that game. I don't know if he ever played again.”
That was his first experience of domination, he says, almost casually, as if knocking large people over has since become as routine as filling up a tank of gas. When Ravens coach John Harbaugh on Wednesday named Brown the team’s official starting right tackle, it was as much a testament to his stabilizing presence on a once-banged-up offensive line as his ability to force grass stains onto linebackers.
Near the end of a Ravens regular season that has the team holding on to the AFC’s sixth playoff spot, Brown is not the team’s best lineman. (That’d be guard Marshal Yanda.) Nor is he the team’s most important tackle. (There’s a reason Ronnie Stanley will protect Lamar Jackson’s blind side Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.) He still has a ways to go to surpass his father as Baltimore’s most beloved lineman by the name of Orlando Brown.
But there might be no better avatar of the Ravens’ renewed smash-mouth style than the third-round pick who proudly rocks a fox-tail accessory after games and delivers R-rated smack talk during them, who says he plays the position less like a lineman and more like a cornerback, whose defining play this season came as an act of retribution.
“It's kind of like his personality to want to finish,” said tight end Nick Boyle, who with the team’s offensive line has helped power a rushing offense averaging over 200 yards per game in Jackson’s four games as starting quarterback. “Always in the dominant position, always want to finish the guy to the ground, just any play.”
It was that way, too, in college. At Oklahoma, where Brown was a three-year starter, Sooners offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh encouraged him to play with the aggressiveness his father had imbued in him. “Because that's when I'm at my best, man.” As a senior last season, he did not allow a sack. He was named a unanimous All-American.
But he did not dominate the NFL scouting combine as he had so many college opponents. He tested out as weak. He ran slow. On draft day, he fell to the Ravens at No. 86 overall, and he started at right tackle throughout the preseason more out of necessity than merit: The Ravens wanted Yanda to rest up for Week 1, and that meant moving tackle-guard James Hurst over one spot.
But in Week 7, with a back injury sidelining Hurst for the first of six straight games, Brown made his first start at right tackle. He has not missed a snap on offense since. Only center Matt Skura has managed similarly perfect attendance in that stretch.
At 6-8 and 345 pounds, with a wingspan (85⅛ inches, over 7 feet) wider than Joel Embiid is tall, Brown has the size of a prototypical tackle. But he is perhaps blessed — or is it cursed? — with the temperament of a Jalen Ramsey or Josh Norman.
”I like to look at it kind of like a DB: I'm going to take gambles, man,” he said.
In the realm of NFL pass protection, his stand out as geometric outliers. While most tackles retreat on drop-backs against speedy pass rushers, ideally forming a neat semi-circle around the quarterback with their guards and center, Brown will often break from convention.
“I'm going to jump-set a guy,” he said. By which he means rocketing out of his stance at the snap and engaging the onrushing defender on his first kick out wide with a two-hand punch. It is bold and it is aggressive and it is not something defensive end Brent Urban sees regularly.
“He'll come at you with his long arms and stuff and kind of knock you off balance,” he said. “Generally, offensive guards are the guys that'll try to hit you first, and the tackles are more, I guess, passive. ... But I've seen many passing plays where he'll come out and really attack guys, so it's fun to watch.”
While Brown is about as graceful as an Abrams tank moving downfield, he does not lack for opportunities to engage. Sometimes it can be two defenders at once. Late in a Week 11 win over the Bengals, he advanced to the second level on a zone-read play. With his right hand, Brown held off defensive end Jordan Willis, wriggling free of a block from Boyle. With his left, he halted linebacker Hardy Nickerson just inside Cincinnati’s 10-yard line.
A second later, Edwards was in the end zone, Willis and Nickerson both having been dropped to their knees on a game-tying touchdown.
Brown’s approach ensures occasional problems — a holding penalty cost wide receiver John Brown a long completion in Week 12 — but also big blocks, too. According to an unofficial tally by Russell Street Report’s Ken McKusick, Brown has registered 17 pancake blocks in his seven starts. Over the same span, Yanda has four.
Ravens offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris keeps tabs on his linemen’s knockdowns, too. Brown couldn’t remember his season-long total, but he said he was credited with 11 in their Week 13 win against the Atlanta Falcons — “probably the most I think I might have ever had in a game,” he said.
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Still, Brown has problems with the accounting. D'Alessandris “misses a lot of them,” he deadpanned. “He's like 60-40 [in his accuracy rate]. You can tell him I said it. He misses a lot of them.”
Most of the NFL has seen his most famous takedown already. Matched up with Pittsburgh Steelers star T.J. Watt in Week 9, Brown said he wanted to “set the tone from second one, really.” In the third quarter, Watt tried to bull-rush Brown, the kind of power move that the 22-year-old said he used to struggle with.
Brown knew from Watt’s lean that it was coming. He caught his left hand, stopping him dead in his tracks. For a second, it looked as if the two were ballroom dance partners, their chests close together, one arm jutting out, their fingers almost interlocked.
But all hope for a sack was lost, so Watt’s aim changed. During the game, Brown recalled, Watt was “kind of doing a lot of dirty stuff, like sticking his hand in my face mask,” and he did so again now. Brown raised his own right arm to Watt’s helmet and started to drive him the other way. From there, gravity took over. Watt fell backward. Brown piled on top of him. Just like old times.
“He's very dominant at what he does, and so when you're going against the best, you've got to beat them to be considered one of the best,” he said of the block, one clip of which has been retweeted over 700 times.
Skura didn’t see the play, but he did hear the play-by-play, kind of — Brown was talking to Watt throughout the tussle. When Skura finally caught a replay during a team meeting, he laughed. That was Orlando, all right.
“I think it's just his mentality,” Skura said. “I think that's just in his nature.”