What Makes Titans’ AJ Brown so Good

By Casey Sully
Dec 8, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders during the second quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans drafted a star when they selected AJ Brown in the 2019 NFL Draft. He brings physicality and play-making ability to every snap and has 56 receptions, 881 yards, and 10 touchdowns on the year and has implemented more and more route technique and nuance. He might only be 6’0” but he plays with size and aggressiveness. Sometimes that can get him into trouble, but he’s a perfect complement to what Tennessee can do in the run game.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Physicality

AJ Brown is a physical player. He isn’t afraid of initiating contact and letting corners run with him and he uses that contact to extend at the top of his routes to create separation. He will even search for that contact if corners are squatting on his route and use his momentum to push off.

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You may be looking at this and say hey, isn’t that offensive pass interference? The answer is yes. Yes it is. But he does have a technique to it. Brown does a good job of using the defender’s momentum against them so that it looks like a natural movement. He also keeps his arm extension relatively tight to his body so that it looks like his normal running motion. You can see at the top of this route against the Browns he’s actually extending that arm before he makes contact. This keeps distance between himself and the corner with a smaller push at the top of that arm extension. The whole movement is very fluid though. His arm pump moves naturally. On the extension of that inside arm he’s making contact and pushing while bringing the arm through.

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The same thing happens on this rep against the Colts. He uses the arm closest to the defender to help push them the way they’re already going. He syncs that push up with his arm pump so that it looks like a natural movement through his cut and the defender has just overplayed it or slipped. These movements are all tight to the defender’s frame too. He doesn’t get too high or up on the shoulder so it’s harder for the refs to see. There is an art behind it.

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While that physicality is great when it works, at times he can get caught up with it. When a defender matches his physicality and plays him hard at the line of scrimmage, he can struggle to get into his route. So, when he tries to separate at the top, it’s much harder because the defender is leaning the contact.

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Route Technique

Using the defender’s movements against them is something that he’s getting better and better at. The nuance in his routes is really starting to stand out. His ability to stem, work zone coverage, and release off the line of scrimmage have taken big leaps in year two. He creates separation for himself not through just pure physicality but through having a plan of attack.

Threatening Vertically

Here AJ Brown uses a quick hop release to get himself closer to the corner right off the snap. This closes the space without the defender feeling threatened and like they have to bail. It’s a nice release, but what I love about what Brown did in this play is getting vertical for one step and leaning back into the corner once he’s into his route. He knows he got a clean release and the corner is working in trail position. That one step and lean threatens the corner vertically and makes them change their angle to protect deep. It helped create even more separation as that defenders’ momentum is now going vertically. Brown showed really good understanding of route technique and the situation.

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That vertical threat is what AJ Brown has been able to tie into his routes more and more. In every route, you want to be able to threaten vertically even if it’s a short route. It helps you create space and get the defender moving. On this deep slant, AJ Brown does a great job of that. His initial release pushes the corner outside to create space away from the linebackers. He’s then he’s able to swim inside so that he can break to the slant. He didn’t immediately get to it and look inside though. He showed great discipline here keeping his eyes up and running vertically before planting for the slant.

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You can see this even more clearly on the broadcast copy. There’s that slight initial stem outside which gets the corners hips pointed outside. That threat of the outside release is the first portion of the route and helps get the corner in panic mode to protect the potential fade outside. Brown is patient, though, and stays vertical on his line until the last second. His body and head turn at the same time to prevent any indication to the corner.

Now when he combines some of these route techniques he gets some really good separation. He can use the stem releases that move the defender or turn their hips, threaten vertically, and then use that physicality from earlier if the defender is still running with him. He does a good foot fire stem release outside here to move Marcus Peters off his spot. That creates space and also gives him that inside track he wants so that he can get vertical. When Peters is still right with him, he then uses that physicality. He extends his arm during his running motion to create a ton of separation on the slant.

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Setting up Defenders

To take it to the next level, AJ Brown has even started incorporating some of his releases and route techniques as setups on blocking plays. On this play against the Jaguars, AJ Brown runs off the line before throttling down and then bursting to the outside to block his man. That same movement and burst can also be used on a pass route but now he’s shown that look on a running play where he’s blocking.

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Now fast forward a quarter in the game and AJ Brown uses the same mannerisms and release to sell that he’s blocking on the play before planting and running a slant. He gets up on the defender, throttles down like he’s about to block him like he showed before, and then turns it on for the slant where he creates about three yards of separation. It demonstrates a really good understanding of how to play the game within the game and build on things you’ve shown earlier to the defense. Small little things like that are adding up for AJ Brown and are quickly helping him become one of the better receivers in the league.

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He’ll always use these block fake releases on play-action too. The DB is now getting both that run block fake and is reading the run action which sells Brown’s route even more. Keeping the corner guessing works both ways too. Whenever he releases like he’s going to block, the corner now knows that he might run a route. That in turn makes defender less eager to crash on the run.

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Friendly Angles for QB

AJ Brown also does a very good job at trimming his routes and being quarterback friendly by working back to the ball. It’s a small thing that isn’t necessarily visible when you’re watching on TV, but it makes a world of difference to keep the defender from getting a hand on the ball and contesting the catch. He’s just always, always working back to the ball.

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Drop Issues

While all these little things are great, Brown has also developed a little bit of a drop problem and most of them are concentration drops. When you play physically and you have some contested catches, you’ve obviously also got to be locked in on the ball. Brown has just been a little inconsistent there even with some routine catches.

Final Thoughts

AJ Brown is well on his way to being a premier receiver in the NFL. He has everything you’d look for and is starting to play like one of the smartest receivers in the game by manipulating his releases, routes, and setting defenders up. He’s physical, a great team player, and is a home run waiting to happen. A bright future is ahead for him and the Titans. There’s one thing defenders should know when they play Tennessee. They’re there to be physical and they’re there to assert their will on offense and if things keep going well and their stars keep shining, they’ll be asserting their will all the way to the Super Bowl.

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