After the St. Louis Rams' blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys, fans and media members alike believed they would bounce back in a big way on Thursday Night Football. The San Francisco 49ers were coming off two straight losses of their own, and their defense was without cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.
Additionally, St. Louis has made it a point in the past to play San Francisco tough under head coach Jeff Fisher. Unfortunately for the Rams, their disastrous play from Week 3 carried over into Week 4. The offensive line looked atrocious once again, and quarterback Sam Bradford couldn’t find a viable receiving target.
On 41 pass attempts, the fourth-year signal-caller completed 19 passes for 202 yards and posted a quarterback rating of 59.2. The team’s most effective wideout was Austin Pettis, who caught five passes for 59 yards.
The team’s most ineffective pass-catcher was first-round pick Tavon Austin.
Despite being targeted eight times, Austin finished the game with a horrid stat line. He caught two passes for six yards, and his longest catch of the night went for four yards. Thursday’s showing signaled the fourth straight game where he has failed to garner at least 50 yards receiving.
What gives? When an organization moves up in the draft to select the most explosive player in college football, one has to think he would immediately become the team’s focal point on the offensive side of the ball.
Instead, Austin has made more of an impact on special teams as a punt returner. This has to change as soon as possible if the Rams want to start putting points on the board. Ever since tight end Jared Cook’s dominant performance in Week 1, defenses have turned him into a nonfactor.
That, in turn, means Austin should have no problem finding favorable one-on-one matchups down the field. Even the most talented of defenses can’t cover every receiving option. However, it goes well beyond finding favorable matchups.
A quarterback has to be able to trust his weapons, and pass-catchers have to minimize their mistakes to earn the quarterback's trust. Right now it's obvious that Bradford doesn’t trust Austin because the game is moving at an incredibly fast pace for the first-year player.
Austin’s quickness and game-changing speed has gone to the wayside. He’s thinking more than he is reacting. Pundits often say that wide receivers and cornerbacks have the toughest transition from the collegiate level to the pros.
So, what can the Rams do to get Austin playing at a reactionary level?
The first thing is to play him at one position. Instead of playing him at all three receiver positions, they need to either play him in the slot or on the outside. Slow the game down for him and keep things simple.
Austin’s brain has to be on overload. Yes, St. Louis wants him to be able to play every position someday, but right now is not the time. Eventually he will be able to line up all over the field and exploit defenses, yet at the moment that is tough for him to do when he is constantly moving around.
Chris Givens, Brian Quick and Pettis have proven that they can be productive on the outside, which means Austin should be moved to the slot. Moreover, one has to think he would make more of an impression in the slot based on the talent level he would see against a slot cornerback.
The second thing the Rams need to do is line him up in the backfield. Don’t force him to learn the running back position, because he isn’t a running back, but allow him to move freely in space as a back would.
When Austin was at West Virginia, he took snaps out of the backfield all the time. Coaches often overcomplicate the game for young players. Sometimes too much information is a bad thing. Not every receiver can come into the league and excel the way Randy Moss did his rookie season.
As soon as Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer give Austin less to do, the quicker he'll become more of an immediate factor on game day. Less isn’t always more, but in this case it certainly is.