OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In the final seconds Sunday, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver John Brown ran down the sideline where he found the soft spot in the New Orleans Saints' coverage.
Brown knew Joe Flacco soon would find him for a 14-yard touchdown.
Whether it's in the end zone, on fourth down or deep downfield, Brown and Flacco have formed the best new tandem in the NFL this season. They immediately built a trust, and as Brown puts it, an instinctual bond.
"It's just something about Joe Flacco," Brown said. "I have a feeling when I know the ball is coming to me."
Flacco says the rapport with Brown began to take shape in training camp. Brown says he believes it goes beyond and deeper than that.
During free agency, Brown received contract offers from the Buffalo Bills and the Oakland Raiders. He chose to come to Baltimore because of a strong-armed, Super Bowl-winning quarterback who wore the same uniform number as his late brother.
James Walker, Brown's older half-brother who was shot to death eight years ago, sported No. 5 from Pee Wee through high school. Asked how he honors him, Brown turns over his right forearm to show a tattoo that reads "My brother's keeper" around a "5."
"I think that's why Joe Flacco loves throwing me the ball," Brown said with a smile.
Brown's love for football started with his brother. They would roll some socks into a ball and toss it around the house like a football. If they couldn't find socks, Brown and his brother would throw around a plastic soda bottle.
A year younger than Walker, Brown watched his brother get the chance to play football first. At age 5, he carried his brother's shoulder pads walking to and from practice.
"They were best friends," said Cassandra Brown, John's mother.
Brown and Walker talked about their dreams of playing in the NFL. They promised they would take care of their mother. Brown would bounce around three colleges before getting drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals.
Walker was a defensive back at MidAmerica Nazarene University and helped the NAIA school in Kansas to a conference championship in his second season. On July 4, 2010, Walker was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the head, while sitting in a car outside a Miami nightclub.
"They were so close," Cassandra said. "It really impacted [Brown] a lot."
Walker hung on for nearly 10 months in a coma. He died in April 2011, a day after Brown was offered a scholarship to play at Pittsburg State, a Division II school in Kansas.
Brown told the coach that he wouldn't be coming to school unless he got to wear No. 5. The first time he touched the ball with that uniform number, Brown returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown.
"[What happened to Walker] taught me a lesson that, no matter how hard things get, you can't give up," Brown said.
John Brown's tattoo honors his deceased brother, who always wore No. 5, the same number as Joe Flacco. Jamison Hensley/ESPN.com
A 1,000-yard receiver in 2015 for the Arizona Cardinals, Brown totaled 816 yards and five touchdowns the past two seasons due to injuries. He insisted in signing just a short-term deal in free agency because he was gambling on himself, knowing he could land a big payday if he put up big numbers and stayed healthy with the Ravens.
Brown reached a one-year, $5 million agreement that ranked 14th among free-agent wide receivers this offseason. Seven months later, Brown is 14th in the NFL with 558 yards receiving.
He has more receptions (28) than Larry Fitzgerald, more receiving yards than Antonio Brown and more touchdown catches (four) than Mike Evans.
"When we were in pads, against a good defense in our own -- you could really start to see some of the things that make him special," Flacco said. "He's really smooth, he has really good ball skills, and he does a lot of things really well that help him out."
Brown has brought the deep ball back to Baltimore. He has a knack for running stride for stride with defensive backs deep downfield before kicking into an extra gear to gain separation.
Quite a bargain
John Brown leads all free-agent or traded WRs who are in their first seasons with a new team in receiving yards:
|John Brown||Ravens||$4 million||558|
|Jarvis Landry||Browns||$34 million||489|
|Michael Crabtree||Ravens||$13 million||409|
|Sammy Watkins||Chiefs||$30 million||346|
|Willie Snead||Ravens||$3 million||336|
Brown and Tampa Bay's DeSean Jackson are the only two players in the NFL this season to produce over 500 yards receiving and average over 19 yards per catch. Brown's seven receptions of 25 or more yards are second only to Kansas City's Tyreek Hill and is one more than Mike Wallace's team-leading total (six) from last year.
But Brown wants to be known more than a deep threat. In Sunday's loss, Brown ran a comeback route for a 13-yard catch that converted a fourth-and-7 in the second quarter. In that same quarter, Brown took a short pass over the middle and raced upfield for a 56-yard gain.
"It was important to show the Ravens. I don't care what anyone else had to say," Brown said. "I know what type of receiver I am. I'm just thankful and they know that I can do more than just go deep."
Brown is also thankful of the time he had with his brother, who serves as an inspiration to play the game. In August, he wrote a 6,100-word essay in The Players' Tribune about the motivation he draws from Walker.
"Because if it weren't for you, I don't know if I ever would have found the courage to pursue my NFL dream," Brown wrote. "All those times you told me that I was the secret weapon meant so much to me. But the reality is, you were mine."