St. Louis Rams: An Improved Return Game?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, the St. Louis Rams were one of the league’s worst teams in regards to starting field position. Have they shown improvement in 2013?

It was just over one year ago that I highlighted just how ‘insane' the Rams were in the return game, and how their starting field position wasn’t placing a mediocre offense in a position to succeed. Common sense would tell you it would behoove a team with limited big-play ability to find a way to start drives beyond their own 20-yard line. The Rams, however, hand’t faired too well in that category by last December, and inability to find the answer ultimately ranked them 30th in the NFL; starting drives at their own 24.

The Rams’ return unit got a shot in the arm when they drafted Tavon Austin last April. Outside of his ability to make game-changing plays on offense, Austin was one of college football’s most electric kick/punt returners. It goes without saying, his ability to contribute on special teams played a factor in the Rams moving up - to 8th overall - to draft him. It was certainly one reason why I saw him as a perfect fit for St. Louis.

But Tavon’s presence on special teams - being no fault of his own - hasn’t quite jettisoned the Rams from Bottom-3 to Top-10; specifically in regards to starting field position. In fact, the Rams have only moved up one spot from 2012, who now rank 29th in the NFL [own 25.6].

On kickoff returns, it’s actually Rams’ running back, Benny Cunningham, who’s shown the ability to get the team furthest from their own end zone. Cunningham - on 12 returns - has tallied 299 return yards, and though he doesn’t "qualify" [averaging one return per game played] his 24.9 yard per return average would rank 12th in NFL. Austin’s 21.6 yard average [14 attempts] doesn’t crack the Top 20.

Punt returns are where Tavon has shown most promise, and the ability to wound the opposition with a single play. While Austin and Cunningham share a long for kickoff returns [32 yards], Austin’s 98-yard punt return for a score was one of the most notable plays of the 2013 season. It’s certainly one of the more memorable.

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Penalties on punt returns have hampered Austin’s ability to have league-leading numbers as a punt returner, though. His 84-yard punt return for a score in a 31-7 loss at Dallas on Sept. 22 was called back. Against Jacksonville, he had three returns called back that totaled 81 yards. Add those 165 yards and four attempts to his stat line, and Tavon jumps from 15th in the NFL [8.7 yard per return average] to 3rd with 13.9. He’d also be 10 yards behind Dexter McCluster for most punt return yards in the NFL. Revisiting these critical errors on special team’s isn’t quite as painful as having witnessed them live, but the adverse effect they’ve had on Austin - and the team - is evident.

Now, if you’ll allow, I’d like to transition to length of drive

Last year, as referenced in the linked article above, the Rams were not only starting drives with their own end zone a little too close for comfort, but their offense wasn’t doing them many favors in formulating sustainable drives downfield. At this time last year, the Rams were averaging drives of 29.62 yards [23rd]. In 2013, a seemingly much-improved Rams offense is averaging 29.75 yards per drive [17th]. Oh, the impact 4.68 inches can have…

Year
SLoS
Rank
Off Yds/Dr
Rank
Avg. End of Drive
2012
24
30
29.62
23
Opponent’s 46
2013
25.6
29
29.75
17
Opponent’s 44


You’ve probably heard coaches refer to winning in all three phases. While special teams seemingly plays a much lesser role in a game, it’s also one facet that can quickly shift momentum as easily as the outcome. Averages, at this point, are far less impactful than the potential of any given play. Tavon has proven this to be true.

The statistics shown above - while not thrilling - appear to be overstated. I’ll admit, when I stumbled upon them 366 days ago, they seemed to have extreme significance. For a team who struggles to put together long, meaningful drives, positioning the offense closer to midfield seemed like a no-brainer. Well, it still is. But, it’s not completely indicative of a team’s propensity to score.

I’m sure most teams would prefer to start their drives at the 31-yard line like the league-leading San Francisco 49ers. They’d also prefer to sustain long, time-consuming drives like the San Diego Chargers, who average 39.43 yards per drive through Week 13. You’d be seeing a lot of Greg Zuerlein if that were the case.

The reality of the matter, though, is that the Rams have found a way to score despite relatively poor starting field position, and with minimal improvement in drive sustainability. The defense ranks 2nd in the NFL with 5 TD’s [2 INT, 3 Fumble]. Tavon Austin - as seen above - can [and will] make plays that averages won't explain. The Rams - despite missing their starting QB for 5+ games - are averaging 23.3 points per game this season; as opposed to 18.7 in 2012.

For all the excitement surrounding how improved the Rams’ return game would be this year, the starting field position stat is rather disappointing as we approach the end of the 2013 season. But that’s really in the numbers. We’ve seen what Tavon Austin can do. We’ve seen exhilarating returns called back due to penalty. The fan-base shares Austin’s disappointment. But practice, experience, and a touch of patience for the league’s youngest team - sooner or later - are going to consistently position the Rams’ offense in a position to put points on the board…if Tavon hasn’t done that for them already.

On paper, it’s not pretty. Numbers aside, it’s something to feel encouraged about.

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