Tavon Austin fielded a punt from Jacksonville’s Bryan Anger and, through a series of dizzying cuts and bursts of speed, reminded everyone why he is the St. Louis Rams’ rookie sensation.
But like the 81-yard Austin return for a touchdown that caused a stir against Denver in the preseason, this 49-yard run — which would have landed the Rams on the Jacksonville 26-yard line — didn’t count. A flag was on the field, and another one of the big moments that we all expected out of Austin was wiped away.
Whether it be the plague of special teams penalty problems that have negated some of Austin’s best punt returns (another 29-yard return Sunday disappeared thanks to an illegal block), the offense’s inability to get the ball to Austin in space or Austin’s trouble holding onto the ball when quarterback Sam Bradford finds him, it’s clear things could be off to a smoother start.
And when Austin was seen quickly exiting the Rams locker room after Sunday’s win, eye black still on his face, it’s safe to conclude the working out of kinks is becoming increasingly frustrating for the Rams and the player they traded up to land as the eighth pick in this year’s draft.
“Yes, it did,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said in a Monday press conference when asked if the special teams game ball he gave Austin cheered the rookie up.
“And I showed him his stats if you take away the penalties,” Fisher said.
But the official stats paint a bit of a different picture of how the Rams are using their 12-plus million dollar man.
Austin has fielded 17 punts. Three have been fair catches and 14 have been returned for 57 yards. He’s averaging 3.4 yards per return; his longest non-negated return went 14 yards.
Meanwhile, as a receiver, he has caught 23 of the 40 balls thrown his way for 156 yards and two touchdowns. His longest reception has been 25 yards. He averages 6.8 yards per catch — 3.0 at the point of the grab and 3.8 after.
And while the Rams have flirted with the idea of Austin being an element in the team’s mostly weak running game, Austin has carried the ball just four times for 10 yards. Seven came on one run.
“Well, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to get the run after catch,” Fisher said previously of Austin’s slow start on offense. “We’ve got to get him in position to where he’s got a chance to make somebody miss and go. That’s just a matter of continuing to work on things and maybe experiment with some different things.”
At some point the working-on-things line doesn’t, well, work. The Rams (2-3) are well into the season and the player they touted as their biggest scoring threat is being asked to find solace in erased punt return yards while averaging fewer yards per catch and game than Austin Pettis, Chris Givens and tight end Jared Cook.
“We felt like we needed a player to create a mismatch,” Fisher said after Austin was drafted, “and we feel that he helps create that for our entire offense now.”
Five games in, the mismatch seems to be between Austin and the Rams.
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