The All-22: Where have you gone, Tavon Austin?
The St. Louis Rams traded up eight spots in April's draft to nab Tavon Austin, and coach Jeff Fisher immediately began promoting the impact Austin could have on his team's offense.
"We felt like we needed a player to create a mismatch and we feel that he helps to create that for our entire offense now," Fisher said.
So what's gone wrong? Austin had a rather ho-hum preseason (eight catches for 66 yards) that left Fisher explaining that the Rams "haven't shown" their plans for Austin yet. A quarter of the way into the season, we're all still waiting.
Austin has been almost a non-factor in the Rams offense. His yards-per-catch average of 6.2 is worst among St. Louis receivers and better than only seldom-used tight ends Cory Harkey and Mike McNeill overall. Austin has 20 grabs in four games, but he has totaled only 124 yards (6.2 yards per catch); his YAC (yards after contact) average is even worse at 3.1, according to Pro Football Focus.
The explanation comes from a combination of factors, all of which coincidentally are contributing to St. Louis' offensive struggles as a whole: no run game, poor line play and vanilla play calling.
Austin averaged 11.2 yards per touch during his exciting West Virginia career. To begin challenging those numbers again, a lot needs to change for both Austin and the Rams.
One of the knocks on Austin as a first-round prospect was that he is not a Calvin Johnson- or Larry Fitzgerald-type receiver -- someone who can get open against anyone or make tough catches. Instead, Austin relies on schemes and play calls to free him up, thus allowing him to turn loose his athleticism in the open field.
A lot of St. Louis' looks to him this year have flown in the face of that plan. Here's one such example, from the Rams' Week 3 loss in Dallas. Austin (circled in yellow) lined up in the slot with a receiver to his right. He then ran a route to the flat, where Sam Bradford fired him the ball, as the receiver next to him curled into the middle.
The Rams get a check mark here for getting the ball out quickly and into Austin's hands -- we'll circle back on this idea of essentially using quick passes as long handoffs, to offset the shaky run game.
That whole "Get him in the open field" idea, though? No dice.
By the time Austin got the ball on that play, he basically found himself boxed in on the sideline by two defenders and the boundary. Dallas did not bite on that decoy curl route and the receiver did not block once Austin had the ball, leaving the rookie in a one-on-two situation with nowhere to turn.
Austin ran into a similar problem on a play later in the game. Again lined up in the slot, he ran a quick route to the middle of Dallas' zone defense.
Bradford hit him, but again ... where is Austin supposed to go here?
He managed to avoid the first hit, turn outside and pick up a couple of yards. But if the idea is to give Austin an opportunity to make defenders miss or crank up his 4.34 speed, getting him the ball surrounded by the opposition in a confined area will not work.
But the other problem St. Louis has run into, with regard to Austin's usage, is that when it tries to be a little more creative, Austin still gets minimal help. This next shot is from a play last Thursday against San Francisco. The Rams motioned Austin out of the backfield to Bradford's left, then set up a screen pass to him.
Unfortunately for the Rams, there were a couple of problems here:
1. The 49ers were plenty aware of Austin's presence and essentially anticipated the pass to him as he motioned.
Brooks beat Long to the edge, Cook missed his block and Austin wound up with three defenders in his face before he could get beyond the line of scrimmage.
The blocking conundrum was even more apparent on another attempt to give Austin some room later in the game. Again, Austin started in the backfield, then slid to Bradford's let before the snap -- this time, he headed outside the slot man.
The play worked, at least at the onset. The Rams offensive line let San Francisco's four-man front through, as is often the plan on a screen. Two offensive lineman then released beyond the line of scrimmage in Austin's direction, where Cook already was lined up.
And, on the other side of the field, the Rams faked a second screen, drawing multiple San Francisco defenders. Austin got the ball with two 49ers and three Rams in front of him. This should have been the home-run play St. Louis has been waiting for from Austin.
Except, one more time, the Rams botched their blocks. Those two defenders managed to circumnavigate the three blockers, hemming in Austin; a lineman also dropped back to seal off any room Austin may have had diving back inside.
Plain and simple, this was an execution problem.
Which brings us to this mystery as it pertains to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: Is he being too unimaginative when it comes to his rookie talent, or are the pieces he has incapable of winning on plays designed for Austin?
The answer probably lies somewhere in-between the two possibilities. Schottenheimer has a history of being rather boring in his play calls, and he has given Austin only minimal opportunities to really show what he can do. Then, when Schottenheimer does open the playbook, breakdowns in blocking are leaving Austin without anywhere to go.
Austin's slow start is a problem St. Louis has to fix if it wants its offense to really take off in 2013. The Rams drafted Austin because they believed he could elevate them to another level. So far, they're headed in the wrong direction.