N.F.L. Receivers Are Showcasing a Throwback Skill: Blocking

N.F.L. wide receivers’ job descriptions are straightforward: Most of it is in the title.

They normally align themselves away from the congestion of their bulkier teammates and opponents — wide — and receive the ball, preferably in the end zone.

Their hands are essential to the latter function, a reason many would not want to risk their mitts blocking defenders to assist on a run play.

The Tennessee Titans’ receiver A.J. Brown thinks otherwise.

In Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, Brown caught only three of his nine targets, four of which he dropped. While his production slipped, his teammates, the star running back Derrick Henry and receiver Julio Jones, whom the Titans traded for last off-season, shined, posting 365 yards combined from scrimmage. Henry rushed for three touchdowns.

On one of them, a 60-yard sprint down the sideline in the fourth quarter, Brown lined up near the offensive tackle on the line of scrimmage and pushed safety Jamal Adams out of Henry’s path. Whether Adams would have tackled Henry or become another stiff-arm meme is unknown, but Brown’s block certainly cleared the way for the score. The Titans later won, 33-30, in overtime. Even during one of his worst statistical games, Brown was still an asset.

“I try to take pride in it and not let my guys take cheap shots,” Brown said in a January phone interview.

In this era of the N.F.L., where prolific offense is necessary to even be competitive and quarterbacks routinely throw for 300 yards a game, receivers’ blocking can seem like a bygone skill, a vestige of a more brutal time. But current players and coaches say the opposite is true: Skillful blocking from the receiver position has actually become more vital as offenses thrive on plays with multiple options.

That is in part how the Titans earned the A.F.C.’s top seed in the playoffs despite finishing the regular season ranked 24th in passing — their run-dominant strategy hinges on the whole lineup selling the rush.

“It’s something you have to demand,” receivers coach Rob Moore said. “They understand if you want to be a Titan, that’s what you have to do. It’s a prerequisite to getting on the field.”

Wide receiver, a skill position, has traditionally been occupied by players with large personalities who constantly demand the ball and the spotlight. Even for soft-spoken players like the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper, who subtly asked for more targets, a polite request could fill days of content on local talk radio.

Titans receiver A.J. Brown, left, blocked Jamal Adams on a run play for Derrick Henry last September.Credit…Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

The N.F.L. in recent years has evolved to promote more aerial strategies. Rule changes to pass interference penalties complicate defenders’ abilities in coverage. Playbooks have morphed to utilize the width of the field with five eligible receivers — the maximum number allowed.

But despite that transformation, blocking is still a skill displayed among the position’s elite, said Phil McGeoghan, a veteran wide receivers coach who has worked for the Chargers, Dolphins and Bills and was hired this week by the University of Colorado. It should continue, he said, because players are better than ever at run blocking despite the perception that the N.F.L. is a “pass-first league.”

“They’ve done a really good job of creating a culture and a standard within the receiver community with these star players,” McGeoghan said. “They’re all tough, they’re all unselfish and they’ll block you.”

Pass-heavy teams still run the ball to remain balanced, but some teams build their philosophy with a rush-first approach. It helps squads control the time of possession, wears down defenses and sets up deceptive play-action passes.

Their strategy cannot work without technically sound, convincing blocks from receivers, who can create cutback lanes and can act as escorts downfield if the running back breaks free. That’s evident with Brown, especially with his 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame. Despite missing four games, he leads Tennessee in yards (869), receptions (63) targets (105) and touchdowns (5).

“It’s a ‘want-to’ thing,” Brown said. “I think it’s one of those things where you have to be well-rounded, and you just have to not want your guys to get tackled.”

An effective blocking receiver affords offenses more schematic luxuries, McGeoghan said. On motions across the formation, they can generate momentum and serve as the lead blocker for a running back. On run-pass-options and bubble stop screens, it normally leads to more success for perimeter-based plays when the player can uproot a potential tackler in one-on-one scenarios.

In last season’s “Hard Knocks,” McGeoghan scolded the Chargers’ receivers in a profanity-laced speech after seeing one of them commit a subpar block, and the moment gained internet infamy. He chuckles now looking back at it, but at the time, the harsh words conveyed a message he hopes they understood.

“You just can’t get by with a guy who can’t function in the run game,” McGeoghan said. “He doesn’t have to be a killer, but he has to function within the system and do his job.”

Rams receivers Cooper Kupp, left, and Odell Beckham Jr., right, have one of the more rigorous blocking schemes in the N.F.L.Credit…Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The Los Angeles Rams, who arguably have one of the best receiving tandems in the league, also have what may be the most demanding blocking system for the position group. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods for years had established themselves as willing blockers, part of the reason Coach Sean McVay feels the two were voted team captains.

Against the Cardinals in the wild-card round, Kupp finished with 61 yards, his lowest total this season, on five receptions. The Rams instead exploited Arizona’s weak run defense, attempting 38 rushes for 140 yards.

On a scoring drive the first quarter, he sealed off safety Budda Baker on a blitz, which freed Cam Akers for a 15-yard gain. Kupp led the league in every receiving category this season, but his blocking shows he still affects the game even without double-digit catches.

When Woods tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 10, some questioned if the Rams would struggle without him as a blocker. They kept rolling, partly because of the addition of Odell Beckham Jr., but McVay acknowledged at the time that Woods’s loss would be tough to adapt to.

“What these guys have been able to do is very unique and all the different ways that they contribute to the offense not exclusive to when they touch the ball,” McVay said.

Rookies, too, have also impressed.

The Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase performed a solid block against the Lions in Week 6 to escort his running back, Joe Mixon, to the end zone for a 40-yard score. As Mixon jogged to the sideline with Chase, he deferred the credit to the receiver, saying, “That’s his touchdown.”

The importance and impact of receivers’ blocking may not appear on stats, but coaches, players and their peers take note. It’s a skill that relies on effort, and turns wide receivers into playmakers for their peers.

“You really get what you ask for,” said Moore, the Titans’ receivers’ coach. “If it’s important in your room, important to fundamental tasks in terms of what you could do offensively, then it’s going to be something those guys are good at. But if it’s something you don’t demand, then you won’t.”

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