Cardinals wide receiver John Brown hauls in one of his 10 receptions against the Steelers last weekend.
He stands out there before every practice, hands simulating a route run despite standing in place. Ten reps at a time, the ball thrown by offensive assistant Kevin Garver, John "Smokey" Brown works on grabbing the passes out of the air.
The wide receiver has caught passes before practice before he got to the NFL, but never to this extent, and never quite as detailed. He catches throws into his body, over his head, near the sideline. He works on his hands, his footwork.
"Those things build my confidence up," Brown said.
The Cardinals didn't need their confidence in Brown bolstered. That was there before the season, when the expectation was that the second-year wideout was primed to leap into star status.
He has 33 catches for 497 yards and a pair of touchdowns in six games. He has also generated 97 penalty yards on three pass interference calls, and a fourth for 43 more yards was nullified in Pittsburgh, offset with a Cardinals' holding penalty.
"He's, surprisingly, a great 50-50 ball guy and we all know that," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We've seen him do it all training camp long. He runs very decisive routes. He catches the ball well. I've said it – I think he's the fastest player in the league. He's just a very well-rounded player and I expect to see him continue to grow more and more."
Even with Larry Fitzgerald enjoying a statistical renaissance, there has been room enough for Brown. His 10 catches for 196 yards in Pittsburgh set career-bests – and was the second-most receiving yards in an NFL game this season, with Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green's 227 yards against the Ravens the only game better.
Brown is now 13th in the league in receiving yards, and that with Fitzgerald more often targeted.
A couple of the catches Brown had in Pittsburgh were the 50-50 balls to which Palmer referred, dangerous passes that speak to the trust Palmer has in Brown. The two have been close since Brown entered the league.
But coach Bruce Arians shrugged off the idea Palmer forced the ball to Brown at times against the Steelers, noting that while Brown had 14 targets, Fitzgerald still had 10 targets himself (and 93 yards). The crucial late interception Palmer threw was a TD try to Brown.
"Smoke had 200 (yards) just because they couldn't cover him," Arians said. "But no, (Palmer) has thrown it to Michael (Floyd) on third down. We spread it around as much as any team in the league, so no. (Palmer) just misread a coverage."
Before the season, Brown tweeted at both Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton – each once coached by Arians – that he was studying their game. He also let it be known on social media he was feeling like the John Brown of Pittsburg State, the Brown that could dominate.
Brown's day in Pittsburgh did get sidetracked when he was crushed on a James Harrison hit, forcing a fumble and knocking his helmet off. Brown insists he recovered the fumble himself, but at the bottom of the pile his 180-pound self – without a helmet – had no chance of keeping the bigger Steelers players from ripping the ball away.
"(Harrison) got a pretty good shot on me," Brown said. "But at the end of the day, I kept making plays."
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