Break it Down: Rams finally reap the benefits of putting Tavon Austin in space
“I had a Tesla. I was one of the first cats with a Tesla. I think I was, like, number five on the list. But I’m telling you, I’ve been on the side of the road a while in that thing. And I said to them, ‘Look, guys, why am I always stuck on the side of the f------- road? Make it work, one way or another.’” -- George Clooney, on his Tesla electric car, to Esquire Magazine
It's safe to say that fans of the St. Louis Rams were waiting for the Tavon Austin experiment to work, one way or another, and the rookie has learned plenty about patience. The West Virginia receiver was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Rams, who traded up to get him. With that in mind, you'd think that head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would have facilitated a more productive first half of a first season for Austin, but it hadn't happened.
Unquestionably the most dynamic athlete in the NCAA in 2012, Austin gained 7,284 total yards in four collegiate seasons as a receiver, runner, and returner. But coming into the Rams' Sunday game against the Indianapolis Colts, Austin had just 207 receiving yards on 31 receptions and 51 targets. He'd barely made any impact as a pure runner, and even his return ability was relatively negligible.
As Clooney might say, Austin was stuck on the side of the [bleeping] road.
It had been thought that Austin's limited effectiveness in the NFL was a product of Schottenheimer's lack of imagination, and while there may be some truth to that, it's just as true that Austin's primary attribute is clear and obvious -- he is among the most electrifying players at any level when he's allowed to clear out and get in the open field. He didn't face press coverage too often in college because defenses were playing back to counter West Virginia's aerial attack, and he wasn't put in situations where he had to win physical battles. At 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, he's not built to do that.
Whatever went wrong for Austin through the Rams' first nine games, the rookie certainly had a massive turnaround in the team's 38-8 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts. Austin caught just two passes on the day, but those receptions totaled 138 yards, and both went for touchdowns.
He also returned a Pat McAfee punt 98 yards for a touchdown, becoming the third player in NFL history (Cliff Battles, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1937/Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans, 2009) to score three or more touchdowns of 55 yards or more in a single game.
"I've been patient for eight weeks and, hopefully, it's my time right now," Austin said. "I knew the day was going to come. It was just me being patient and me being true to myself and to keep working. I'm just glad that I had an opportunity."
To a degree, the opportunities were created for him, and the oft-criticized Schottenheimer deserves some credit. However, before we praise the coach, we must bury him a bit. The first time Austin for the ball in his hands on offense, it showed what he cannot get away with in the NFL. On the last play of the first quarter, St. Louis had second-and-7 at the Indianapolis 40-yard line, and the call was for a sweep handoff to Austin. The idea was assuredly that Austin would use his raw speed to break the play wide open, but the design of the play actually put Austin in his most disadvantageous position.
Austin lined up as the right-side outside receiver, and he was covered by cornerback Cassius Vaughan. Pre-snap, Austin started his run to the middle of the formation, which gave the entire Colts defense enough time to adjust for an edge run. With that adjustment, there was no way Austin was going to win the speed war, no matter how fast he may be, because the sideline was his enemy, and he had three defenders -- cornerback Vontae Davis, safety LaRon Landry, and linebacker Erik Walden -- making sure he didn't get a free release outside. By the time he completed his four-yard gain, Austin had five Colts bearing down on him.
This kind of sweep, which the New Orleans Saints used to run to perfection when they had Reggie Bush, requires a ballcarrier who can read small gaps and make quick cuts to get upfield. Austin doesn't yet have these abilities -- not at the NFL level, at least.
However, Austin's two receiving touchdowns showed just what a nightmare he is to cover if free space is created for him. The first came with 7:06 left in the second quarter. The Rams had third-and-7 at their own 43-yard line. Austin was lined up outside left, with Davis covering him. Austin Pettis was the slot receiver to the same side, covered by cornerback Darius Butler. Because the Colts had no help up top, it would be on Davis to contain Austin when he shot off the line at the snap and established outside position down the left sideline. Davis' task was complicated by the fact that it was Pettis who drew double coverage -- not only from Butler, but also from Walden, who dropped into coverage on a zone overload blitz. By the time Butler read that Austin had won the footrace with Davis, it was too late to do anything about it.
Austin's second touchdown happened with 14:08 left in the third quarter, and the Rams with third-and-9 at their own 19-yard line. This time, Austin moved from outside to a slot position pre-snap. And this time, Davis moved inside with him, seemingly instructing Butler to assist with bracket coverage up top. This possibility was negated by the fact that the Rams had three receivers to the left side, putting the Colts in a 3-on-3 matchup and preventing double coverage on Austin. Austin moved through the short area of the formation, creating an easy opening with his pure speed.
At the snap, Butler took receiver Chris Givens to the numbers, while Landry covered tight end Jared Cook. The Rams dealt with Butler and Landry by using a crossing combo, and Davis was late to the party when Austin started his crossing route over the middle. Once Austin got the ball and found more real estate downfield, the 81-yard touchdown was a predictable result. Butler and safety Antoine Bethea had no shot in this case, because they weren't set up to contend with Austin in space. Credit in that case must be given to play design.
"He’s a game-wrecker," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of Austin last Wednesday. "He’s a game-breaker. I know the numbers are a little bit skewed because of penalties and things like that, but he’s one of the most dynamic guys. When we watched him coming out, it’s obvious why the Rams took him where they took him. The guy literally can wreck a game for you, not only on offense as a receiver, and no matter how he gets the ball and gets it in his hands, he’s a threat to score from anywhere." When he's given the chance, and the schematic opportunity, he most certainly is. We'll see if the Rams find new ways to keep their fanciest car off the side of the road.