Finally, Austin gives Rams a game-changer
Saturday, November 16, 2013
ST. LOUIS (AP) — After waving teammates away from the ball, Tavon Austin stayed close. He was worried the Indianapolis Colts might down it near the goal line.
The next few seconds were a blur of fearless decision-making, instincts and raw speed. The rookie's long-awaited breakout day was off to the races.
A 98-yard punt return brought the St. Louis Rams' draft-day gadget pick to life in Week 10, the play lasting approximately the same amount of time as his reasoning for taking the risk that propelled his team into the bye week.
"I knew the ball was bouncing my way," Austin said Wednesday. "So, something told me to grab it, and I did. I had a couple blocks and I made a play."
Coach Jeff Fisher, who typically skimps on the compliments, ranked Austin's show as "close to the top" in all his years in the NFL.
The kid caught the Colts flat-footed three times, treating them like a garden variety opponent from his touchdown-machine days at West Virginia in Sunday's surprising 38-8 road blowout of the AFC South leaders. Thus emboldened, Austin then attempted to outrun his previously pedestrian NFL output prior to the game.
"Confidence is the No. 1 thing," Austin said. "My confidence never went down. My coaches and my family kept telling me to be patient, and when my time comes it's going to come."
The Rams (4-6) traded up eight spots to grab one of the fastest players of the draft with the eighth overall pick. Then, they waited.
Most memorable in the early going, perhaps, were the big plays that didn't count. There were enough punt returns called back by penalties that Fisher applauded him for special teams contributions that did not stick, whether or not the illegal block in question was directly responsible.
Austin avoided post-game questions following a victory over the Jaguars at home and fled the locker room without removing eye black. He had four punt returns for 15 yards that game, another 72 yards wiped out.
Austin couldn't have been on the top of the Colts' defensive game plan, much less a candidate for the infinitely more difficult NFL version of a hockey hat trick: three consecutive touchdowns. Not with NFL-low averages of 6.7 yards per catch and 4.7 yards per punt return.
Even after Sunday's display helped the Rams end a three-game losing streak, there's plenty to tap. Austin has dropped seven passes, tied for the league high according to STATS.
Before rolling up 138 yards on two long scoring catches, Austin peaked at 47 yards in Week 2. His best day on punt returns was 33 yards on three attempts against Tennessee.
Austin kept telling himself, "I can do it."
"Me, coming out, I put pressure on myself just knowing how competitive I am," Austin said. "I wanted to help the team. But overall, you've just got to go out and have fun."
Austin scored 17 touchdowns his senior season at West Virginia, including one each on punt and kickoff returns. He holds school records for all-purpose yards and receptions and though he's just 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds, Austin hasn't missed a game in high school, college or the pros.
"Working with him every day in practice makes it a lot easier for me because there are not too many Tavon Austins out there," Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. "I've watched the tape from West Virginia, when he scored every time he touched the ball."
On the 98-yard punt return, tied for third longest in NFL history, the Colts got perhaps a finger on Austin.
"Had guys down there and a bunch of guys maybe assuming play's going to be downed at the 1," coach Chuck Pagano said. "We told our guys — they knew — this guy would catch it at the 1, catch it 5 yards deep."
The Colts were shocked when Austin fielded the punt, but Rams special teamers recovered in plenty of time to pave the way.
"Anytime we can get the ball in his hands, we expect him to go the distance," teammate Ray Ray Armstrong said. "That's why we never quit. He takes chances back there."
Nobody touched Austin on the 57-yard score and the 81-yarder, both victimizing Vontae Davis. The last TD of the day featured 75 yards after the catch off a crossing pattern on third-and-9.
Austin is just the third player in NFL history to score three touchdowns on plays of 50 or more yards in a game.
Blink, and he's gone.
Though they're last in the NFC West, a complete effort against the Colts should boost the Rams' confidence when they return from the bye with a home game against the Bears.
The biggest issue is finding consistency on a big-play defense, especially against the run: The Colts were held to 18 yards rushing, but a week earlier the Titans gained 198.
Having Austin loom larger on the scouting report can only help an offense that's trying to overcome quarterback Sam Bradford's season-ending knee injury.
Rookie Zac Stacy is a keeper at running back with a pair of 100-yard games and three touchdowns the last three weeks, and the line is improved with Rodger Saffold, a longtime starter at tackle, plugged in at right guard in place of injured Harvey Dahl.
Kellen Clemens is coming off a career day, too. The two longest completions of his career went to Austin.
"I don't know what the projections are," Clemens said. "I think we've still got a chance, obviously, to get into the dance at the end of the year."
With Austin doing the fanciest footwork.
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