The Tavon Austin Show Needs a Rewrite as Rams Fall to Packers

The St Louis Rams' home opener vs the Green Bay Packers was treated as little more than a padded practice by Jeff Fisher and the coaching staff, but even with low expectations the level of execution – or lack of it – was irksome for the paying fans in attendance. It was a sloppy contest with many large-yardage plays given up on both sides, but little in the way of scoring until the reserves to the reserves came in. 

The story of the day was supposed to be the home debut of the Tavon Austin electric light show, but his performance lacked juice. Those who have seen the Rams practice list Austin as a sure-fire breakout candidate, a front-runner for offensive rookie of the year. So fans who have only seen his play in two preseason games — in which he has been targeted 8 times and gained a Shurmur-esque 28 yards — can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. 

Here are a few observations on his inauspicious showing:  

– The Packers solved the problem of "who covers Tavon" by not putting a man on him, at least until the Rams got down into goal line territory. Instead, they set up a "Tavon zone," letting Bradford find him for underneath stuff short of the sticks, and sending bodies to converge on him there. It was smart, punishing defensive strategy that was most evident on the Rams' failed 4th down conversion in the 1st quarter. Schottenheimer and Bradford will have to learn to recognize this defensive tendency and defeat it by looking elsewhere for singled-up receivers. They will be there. 

– Down at the goal line, Austin and Givens ran a beautiful rub route that was easily his best-executed route of the game, and entirely shook free of his defender. Unfortunately, Bradford threw a ball that 6'4" Brian Quick would have had to reach for … as it was, it way overshot the 5'8" Austin. An easy touchdown opportunity lost. 

– Tavon didn't help himself when he had the ball by running east-west a lot more often than north-south. This will happen with "space" players trying to find big-play lanes, but he needs to curb that tendency. Everyone is fast in the NFL, and those lanes close up in a hurry. 

– There was a lot of howling at the refs for failing to throw a flag for defensive pass interference on a key Tavon route. I actually think they were correct not to, because Tavon initiated the contact by hesitating as the ball came his way. Like a post-up jump shooter, he was intentionally trying to draw the foul while also trying to make the play. If he had simply run his route, the defender has no play on the ball where Sam put it. 

– Oh, and Tavon got flagged for holding to erase a very good Daryl Richardson outside run. Said D'Marco Farr, always looking for the silver lining, "I didn't know Tavon was strong enough to hold." 

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First team positives: 

Sam again found Chris Givens for a game-changing big play, and he unraveled a disguised Green Bay coverage look to do so. The Packers started the play by rotating their single-high safety over Givens, signaling bracket coverage. Showing this look might have been an enticement for Bradford to look away from his deep threat before the snap.

After the snap, though, the safety peeled off to cover the other side of the field, wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Givens immediately got inside track on his man, and Bradford — far from dissuaded by the initial bracket coverage look — made a snap decision to launch the ball downfield. Givens caught it in stride and was tackled at the four yard line for a 57-yard gain.

This was just one of a half-dozen big-play highlight of the Rams' offensive day. That none created scores is a concern, but this Rams offense looks remarkably more potent than years past.   

Other observations:

– For the second game in a row, Sam Bradford's uniform was kept clean. That is a streak worth preserving. 

Jared Cook's escape speed is a marvel to behold. He took a skinny post up the seam and simply ran away from two pursuing linebackers for an additional 20 yards. More of this, please. 

– Isaiah Pead, given an extended look, improved in the two areas he is most often dogged on, ball security and pass protection. (Unfortuantely, his actual production was not impressive with 29 yards on 12 touches. 21 of those yards came on two plays, meaning he had 10 other chances and gained 8 yards on them.) 

– Daryl Richardson was electric whenever he touched the ball, which was seldom thanks to the coaches' intention of giving Pead a heavy workload. His first touch came as a WR, after motioning out wide, and went for 20+ yards. It makes such a difference to have a RB who can actually beat a linebacker in coverage off the line of scrimmage (… ahem, #39 …) so you can take advantage of this formation flexibility. 

– UDFA Gerald Rivers filled in ably for an absent Eugene Sims as a rotational defensive end. He spelled Robert Quinn in the red zone against Aaron Rodgers in the 1st quarter, and put in a pair of very Quinn-like rushes. I had to do a double-take and look up his name after seeing the number 99 emerge from one such rush.  

– Cortland Finnegan continues to be one of the few members of the first team defense that can make an open field tackle. (That's a positive for him, not the rest of his backfield mates.) 

– Keeping Aaron Rodgers out of the end zone is always admirable. 

– Rodney McLeod, pressed into duty at safety, played a heady and physical game. Competition at this spot should not be closed quite yet. 

– Johnny Hekker and the punt coverage team made many good things happen, with a punt downed at the 1 and another perfect sideline coffin kick that turned into a gift turnover. 

First team disappointments

– Tackling, obviously. Trumaine Johnson and Darian Stewart were notable offenders, but the combination of Eddie Lacy and Jermichael Finley made a lot of Rams on the front seven look bad as well. 

– When a tight end runs by a confused Alec Ogletree to get open for a big gain, we can chalk it up to the rookie learning curve. So what do we call it when the same tight end makes Will Witherspoon look like a potted plant in the defensive backfield? The suspension to Jo-Lonn Dunbar has a real chance of putting this defense in a hole for the first four games. 

– For that matter, Dunbar didn't see the field Saturday, even though he is eligible to play. Doghoused. 

– Austin Pettis was on the field a lot, often lined up as the X receiver. Wasn't targeted once. Paging Brian Quick, please pick up the gold courtesy phone… 

– Outside of the first play from scrimmage, which set up a rumbling wall behind which Pead ran untouched for 11 yards, the run blocking was horrendous. Or Pead's reads were horrendous. Or both. (Credit to Cory Harkey for leading that rumbling wall, by the way.) 

– The multiple penalties for illegal formation, on receivers for failing to cover up the offensive tackles. (There were four by my count, three accepted and one declined.) We can't blame Brandon Gibson for these any more. 

– Greg Zuerlein, missing a chip-shot (for him) 50-yard field goal wide right. 

– I hate to bag on Pead, but the Rams need to quit pretending that he is a viable option at returning kickoffs. He isn't. End of story. He has shown no vision back there, either in practices or in games. He simply looks for his nearest blocker, hoping he can "hide" and then slip past that guy's hip. Runs into a tackle every time. 

Second Team Positives: 

– Mason Brodine and Matt Conrath teamed up to wreak havoc on the interior of the Packers' line. Brodine nearly had the play of the game, going airborne to come awful close to blocking a field goal. The Rams got their hands on two of five kicks, and nearly had two more. 

– Brian Quick ran a beautiful post route for a 20-yard reception on his only target of the night. Played his man extremely well. 

– Quinton Pointer played well all-around, which is not an observation that I have often made. Already solid in special teams, he looks more instinctive at corner. 

– Justin Veltung continues to look the part as a return specialist. Don't count him out as a potential 6th receiver candidate.  

– I haven't written much about Daren Bates, and that is an oversight. #53 on defense is made of pure hustle, and nearly came up with a momentum-swinging fumble recovery. (He was ruled out of bounds on the play, negating the change of possession.) 

Second Team Disappointments: 

– This is the part where I write about our backup quarterbacks. It would be difficult to describe how bad Kellen Clemens was. Insert your own Bernie Kosar joke here. 

– The constant shuffle known as our backup offensive line did not gel well. Chris Williams, sliding from left guard to right tackle, looked uncomfortable and gave up at least one sack that I saw. 

– Stedman Bailey was shut out by QB incompetence. Both of his targets sailed well over his head. I would love to see what he could do with first team reps. 

– Brandon McGee, who has been challenging Trumaine Johnson for first-team work, apparently took a shot to the elbow and had to sit out most of the contest. 

Third Team Notes: 

– Austin Davis struggled to read Green Bay's defense throughout his first two possessions, and held on to the ball far too long. Finally, the light bulb came on in his 3rd possession, and he guided a successful 1-minute drill into the end zone. 

– Andrew Helmick somehow managed to shake two trailing defenders in the middle of a crossing route and got as wide open as the Wyoming plains for a 34-yard catch and run. He is a big play waiting to happen, and as a Lindenwood University man, comes with his own cheering section in the stands. 

– Likewise, Nick Johnson put on a nifty double-move to get ridiculously open for the Rams' lone scoring play.

– After making a name for himself last week, Raymond Radway all but disappeared this week. His number was seldom called, as guys like newly-signed Demetrius Fields got work ahead of him. 

– Cody Davis continues to play instinctive ball. His play speed is very, very good, which speaks to his ability to read an offense. The Rams lined him up as a box safety, as a cover two safety, and as a single-high deep safety. I think I like his speed and tackling ability best up high, as an effective last-line-of-defense.