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Finding a Use for Tavon Austin in the Rams’ Run-First Offense

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Two years ago, the Rams were in the midst of changing their offense in efforts to play to quarterback Sam Bradford’s strengths. They ostensibly tried to recreate Bradford’s Oklahoma offense by spreading things out and using newly-acquired toys Tavon Austin and Jared Cook to create mismatches in the passing game.

That didn’t go well.

Coach Jeff Fisher ditched the experiment just over a month into the season.

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Austin’s production dropped in 2014, totaling 466 yards from scrimmage.

Fast-forward to this offseason and the Rams have gone back to their “ground and pound” ways under Fisher. There will be no identity crisis for the team this year: They’re going to pound the ball on the ground with Todd Gurley and Tre Mason, then use play-action to strike for big yardage. Along with a new offensive centerpiece in Gurley, the Rams drafted four offensive linemen, all with strengths as run-blockers.

So how does a player like Austin fit into a run-first system?

For starters, it’s time to change the expectations for Austin now that he’s heading into his third season. When the Rams traded up for him in 2013, most expected him to be a dynamic playmaker that puts up No. 1 receiver numbers.

But in two years St. Louis has received production more fitting from a No. 4 wideout than a legit go-to receiver. In fact, Austin’s numbers declined last season when he posted a 31-242-0 line coming off a rookie season that saw him catch 40 passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns.

He has contributed on punt returns, finding paydirt in each of his two professional seasons.

But the Rams didn’t trade into the top 10 to nab a punt returner.

The fact is that Austin is, and always will be, a space player. He’s not someone that has the natural ability to consistently win outside the numbers by creating separation at the top of his route, high-pointing passes or being physical through the catch point. He’s not Dez Bryant, which should surprise no one.

What Austin does posses is homerun ability thanks to his straight-line speed and quickness. He may never be a featured receiver, but he’s one of the few Rams players with difference-making speed. And if puts enough good production on film, he’s someone that could start dictating coverage.

The success and/or failure of Austin will come from his ability to develop as a player and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s ability as a play-caller/designer. That may seem unfair to Cignetti, seeing as how he can only work with the talent at his disposal. But often times the difference between NFL offenses that are homogenized and the ones that are creative lie in the abilities of the play-caller.

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The Rams’ draft of Gurley makes clear the team’s tendency towards a run-first offense.

I’ve been critical of Brian Schottenheimer in the past, but he received more blame for the Rams’ offensive problems over the past three years than is warranted. And he did try to get the ball into Austin’s hands, although I’m not sure what outcome Schottenheimer expected while running the 176-pound receiver between the tackles. Still, it’s not like he completely ignored Austin as a play-caller.

The challenge that Schottenheimer faced, and Cignetti will face moving forward, is designing ways to get the ball into Austin’s hands while taking advantage of an otherwise disciplined defense. This is easier said than done, but play-callers like Sean Payton, Andy Reid and Chip Kelly have had varying degrees of success doing so over the years.

Payton showed a knack for dialing up the right screen for Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles, while designing their plays to have a lead-blocker in front. He also has the innate ability to design roles for space players as underneath receivers, giving quarterbacks an easy look over the middle while drawing the rest of the coverage downfield.

Payton has consistently shown the ability to hurt opponents with a well-timed and well-executed screen after the defense had become impatient and overly aggressive.

Reid uses plenty of pre-snap movement and personnel groupings in order to get his players into open space. Jet sweeps as part of packaged plays, misdirection with multiple backs and receivers, and the use of screens are all tools in his offense. While some criticize Reid for complicating things, there’s no question he’s an outstanding offensive mind.

Kelly also utilizes packaged plays to get a defense to overpursue and leave space for his skill position players, all while running his offense at breakneck speed. He might be the best at simplifying the game for his quarterback while maximizing the potential for one-on-one matchups.

Of course, Austin’s future isn’t solely on the play-caller.

While he initially needs open space, once Austin gets into open field, it’s his job to find creases between defenders. Too many times Austin has danced instead of using his instincts, quickness, and lateral agility to get upfield.

It’s not like Schottenheimer was 0-for-200 in finding open space for Austin; at times Austin just failed to use the space he had.

Still, Austin has the skill set to make an impact. The Colts game from his rookie season proved that. And just because the Rams will have a run-first philosophy doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for Austin in Cignetti’s offense. In theory, the running game should create more one-on-one matchups for Austin to exploit a defense that has committed numbers to stopping Gurley and the rushing attack.

It’s up to Austin and Cignetti to maximize those opportunities and stop leaving production on the turf.

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