Heading into Week 10, pundits from around the league felt head coach Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams might not win another game the entire season.
Even though the defensive side of the ball had upped its level of play after franchise quarterback Sam Bradford went down with a torn ACL, backup quarterback Kellen Clemens hadn’t done enough in Weeks 8 and 9 to ensure the organization that he had the necessary know-how to lead scoring drives and win games for the Rams.
However, this past Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts proved to be a different story. For the first time since he took over under center, Clemens looked calm, cool, collected and accurate in the pocket. Gone were the wild, errant throws that plagued him over the course of his first two starts.
In addition to a more settled, relaxed passer, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer did his part as well. His play-calling effectively limited the number of throws Clemens had to make. By the time the clock struck zero at the end of the game, the eighth-year signal-caller had only attempted 16 passes in 55 snaps.
There’s no question the Rams would be better off if they could get away with limiting Clemens on a weekly basis just like they did versus the Colts, yet that notion doesn’t seem plausible in today’s NFL. In a decades' time, quarterbacks have seemingly become the most important position on the field week in and week out.
Yet every successful quarterback needs a trustworthy pass-catching option who helps elevate his level of play. Against Indianapolis, Clemens received an unexpected prize in the form of first-round wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Despite the fact Austin had failed to make his presence felt in the first nine games of the season, he put his best foot forward Week 10 and set multiple records along the way. Aside from registering two catches for 138 yards, the 174-pound speedster became the first player in NFL history with a punt-return touchdown of 95-plus yards and two touchdowns of 55-plus yards in one game.
Moreover, Austin also became the first player in league history to average 78.7 yards per touchdown, according to Randall Liu (NFL’s Director of NFC Football Communications). As you can see, there were plenty of positives that came out of the Rams' trouncing of the Colts for Austin. But that doesn’t mean one good game should signal his full-blown arrival.
Austin’s breakout performance was a beautiful sight—there’s no getting around that; nevertheless, the Rams should taper their expectations and solely focus on the best way to build upon the rookie’s historic showing.
In terms of building on his accomplishments from this past Sunday, there’s no foolproof plan because nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. Yet it’s worth noting that Schottenheimer did something he had never done before against the Colts. Instead of playing Austin in the slot, he used him at both right wide receiver and left wide receiver.
Some of you may be wondering why this matters, but it’s quite simple. By exclusively playing Austin at both the split end and flanker positions, it allowed him to simplify his game and his route combinations. This was something I felt the Rams should have done earlier on in the season.
Will Tavon Austin become a consistent big-play threat from here on out, or was his breakout performance an isolated occurrence?
Trying to teach a rookie wideout all three receiver positions right off the bat can be a bit overwhelming, because it is a well-known fact that collegiate wide receivers often have the hardest time making a smooth transition to the pro game.
And it appears as if Schottenheimer and the rest of the offensive coaching staff finally realized that. Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s unrealistic to think every first-year player is going to make an immediate impact.
In today’s society, especially in the NFL, fans and media members alike expect instant results. As followers of the game, we’ve been spoiled by players who make a seamless transition and dominate right out of the gate.
Here’s what Austin told the media after the game concerning patience and waiting for his opportunity, via Doug Farrar of SI.com:
I’ve been patient for eight weeks and, hopefully, it’s my time right now. 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.
Without question, Rams fans would love to see Austin’s snap count and targets jump up after his breakout game, yet that may not be the most sound approach in terms of building off of the best game of his young career.
The best thing the organization could do is continue to have him on a snap count, deploy him in certain personnel packages and call plays that utilize him in space like it did on his two receiving touchdowns.
On his first receiving touchdown, Austin was lined up on the left side of the formation in the flanker position. Fellow wideout Austin Pettis was lined up in the slot to his right. It was Pettis’ job to run the same 9-route as Austin while doing his best to draw double coverage up the seam.
Lo and behold, Pettis did in fact garner coverage from the slot cornerback and the safety over the top. This, in turn, left Austin matched up with cornerback Vontae Davis down the left sideline. Without safety help down the field, Austin torched Davis for a 57-yard touchdown that he made look effortless.
In all reality, Austin made the play seem easy thanks in large part to his speed, but it was a great play design and call from Schottenheimer. Everything that could have gone right for the Rams on that second-quarter throw did go right.
On Austin’s second touchdown reception, he was again lined up on the left side of the formation in the flanker position. Instead of staying split out wide, Clemens motioned him in closer to the line of scrimmage, which arranged him in a fixed spot right next to slot receiver Chris Givens.
As the play started to develop, Austin ran a shallow crosser right in front of Indianapolis’ linebackers. Once he cleared the Colts’ linebacking corps, Clemens led him with a well-placed throw right out in front of him. After the catch, the only thing Austin had to do was make one defender miss in the open field, and the rest was history.
Eighty-one yards later, Austin celebrated in the end zone with a very special dance named the Terio Dance.
Both of the scores highlighted above represent the types of plays Schottenheimer needs to continue to dial up if he wants Austin to excel over the course of the final six games of the season. Yes, the Rams' playoff hopes have gone out the window in the always-challenging NFC West, yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to improve the offense from now until the end of the season.
If Coach Fisher wants to keep building his program for the future, the best thing he can do is prepare Austin for the 2014 season. Why? Because Austin will undoubtedly be the biggest focal point for the Rams offense as long as he is donning the blue, gold and white uniform.