Secret plans: A closer look at Tavon Austin's NFL debut

Dilip Vishwanat

St. Louis Rams offensive weapon Tavon Austin made his regular season debut last week. How did he look, and, more importantly, how did the coaches employ the first-round speedster?

Tavon Austin made his much anticipated NFL debut last Sunday. The St. Louis Rams offensive weapon caught six passes on seven targets for 41 yards. He contributed another 38 yards thanks to a pass interference penalty he drew. By any measure, it was a solid start for the first-round pick.

"I thought he did a good job," Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "We move him in a lot of spots. He's got a big burden, and I thought he did a very, very good job. He got some catches, and again it doesn't take much for him to catch a ball and get loose. I think that will continue to show up throughout the course of the season."

We were promised some secret plans for the first-round pick, some classified stuff that the Rams didn't want to give away during the preseason. Well, with that kind of build up, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, so I went back and looked at the tape, putting each one of his targets under the microscope.

He did most of his work out of the slot, lined up in the backfield once and had a Cardinal defender assigned to him at every moment.

I'm not pretending to be the coach here. I don't have a window into the game plan or insight into the coaching staff's confidence in Austin. Based on Schottenheimer's quote above, it's sounds like Austin is still learning the ins and outs of the offense.

We may not see these secret plans until later in the year. At any rate, let's take a closer look at Austin's game. I opined a few observations at the end of the post.

Second quarter

1-10-SL 21 (14:08) S.Bradford pass short left to T.Austin to SL 23 for 2 yards

Austin starts out in the slot, and runs across to the right side while Sam Bradford is under center.

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For this play, Austin's going to cross back behind the line, where Bradford's going to throw it to him in the flat. Timing is key for any receiver route. Austin's timing gets thrown off here when he's coming back across the field and Harvey Dahl gets pushed back into him, in the photo below.

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The defense is all over it, and they start heading his way. Slot corner Tyrann Mathieu is there to meet him.

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You can't see it in the screencaps, but Austin loses his footing just a bit on this play when he's one-on-one with Mathieu. Austin's first, regular season NFL target and catch go for two yards.

2-7-SL 36 (12:20) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete deep left to T.Austin

This is the one that ends with a 38-yard pass interference call. Austin gets behind Mathieu, and the corner has no choice but to interfere with his man. It's a fairly standard deep route, but the kind of thing that allows Austin to get behind defenses, which is exactly what he did.

1-10-SL 20 (5:23) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short right to T.Austin to SL 29 for 9 yards (K.Dansby)

This is just a simple dig route. The Rams have Daryl Richardson and Jared Cook spread out, lined up like receivers. Austin is on the right side, a yard or two out from the tackle, on the line and just outside of the most rightward down defensive lineman. He runs a simple dig, about six or so yards down the field before he turns to the outside for the throw.

And then he slips on the turf, but doesn't go all the way down. He gets the ball, and spins to the inside to eke out a few more yards. You have to wonder if he doesn't slip, even just a little, then he has a better shot at getting further down field. Either way, it's a nine-yard gain on a drive that ended with a Jared Cook touchdown.

3-5-ARZ 24 (1:14) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short right to T.Austin pushed ob at ARZ 15 for 9 yards (T.Mathieu)

Same drive as the last play, and another nine-yard gain. But watch this play unfold ...

Austin come across the formation again, and then runs a slant to the flat. He gets the first down. Two plays later, the Rams score. I can't help but watch this and wonder what happens if he goes inside with the throw? Obviously, this is a designed play. And Bradford delivers the ball where he's supposed to, which helps beat single-man coverage on Austin.

Notice something else about this one, where Austin crosses behind the line before the snap? Bradford looks over at him, watches him run by, gets the snap and locks onto Austin immediately.

Third quarter

1-10-SL 19 (10:29) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to T.Austin to SL 21 for 2 yards (Y.Bell)

Well look at that, Tavon's lined up in the backfield ...

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... all so he can run into the slot before the snap. The Cardinals had a man on him the entire time, Bell, who moved with Austin, ending up across from him and down the field prior to the snap.

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He snags the ball, but Bell's moving up and his on him by the time he makes the catch.

2-8-SL 21 (9:55) S.Bradford pass short left to T.Austin to SL 26 for 5 yards (R.Johnson)

This play is one of the few times the Rams had two backs on the field, Richardson and Zac Stacy. They motion Richardson out wide. Austin comes off the right side on a crossing route. He gets a bump from the linebacker as he comes across. But makes the catch, for a five-yard gain.

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Austin still has two men on him. My question with this play is what the heck Zac Stacy is doing. He's looking back at Bradford. But the Rams have no blockers at the second level, just the eligible receivers manned up, with one in bracket coverage just inside the "30" painted on the top of the field/top of the pic. Austin turns to the inside when he catches the ball, and he's got his man beat. But the guy on Stacy comes over to make the tackle, cutting off what could have been a bigger gain.

Fourth quarter

1-10-ARZ 32 (15:00) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short middle to T.Austin to ARZ 18 for 14 yards (R.Johnson)

Of all the plays intended for Austin, this one might have been my favorite. What is it? Nothing but a simple inside dig route. Austin lines up in the slot again, shoots straight down the field and turns in about 10 yards down.

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The Cardinals are giving him an off-man coverage. This is the perfect play for a guy like Austin to exploit that. It was a Mike Martz staple from the GSOT days.

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Austin has to dive forward to make the catch, but he gets the ball in his hands to give the Rams 14 yards. The drive ends two plays later with a touchdown that cuts the Cardinals' lead to 24-21, after Bradford adds the two-point conversion.

What's so great about this play is that they're getting him the ball in space in the middle of the field. If he stays on his feet, all he has to do is beat the deep safety one-on-one and it's a home run.

The Rams followed that play with a poorly executed end-around, you know the one.

1-10-ARZ 22 (10:38) T.Austin right end to ARZ 23 for -1 yards (J.Brinkley)

Here's the initial formation the Rams line up in for the play. The Rams are lined up in a trips formation, to the right side. There's a receiver out wide, and Austin, once again, starts in the slot and comes across right before the snap. In this case, he's going to get the ball as goes behind Bradford.

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The defense is concentrated on the side with the trips, for obvious reasons. But they never have their eyes off Austin. In fact, it looks like one of the defenders is pointing out Austin's movement ... which has been a dead giveaway all afternoon.

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At the snap, the defense shifts with the offense to the left side of the image (the right side for the Rams offense). A tight end from the bunch formation picks up No. 97, Lorenzo Alexander, just like he's supposed to on the play, opening the hole for Austin to come through with the ball. Look at Scott Wells, just down and left from Bradford in this picture. He's about to run into Darnell Dockett, No. 90, who is tied up with a pair of blockers. There it is, circled below, Wells runs into the group of blockers on Dockett. He should be ...

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... coming over to his right, where he would pick up No. 52. That's Jasper Brinkley, and nobody blocks him. He makes the tackle for a one-yard loss.

The missed block isn't the only problem with this play. The Cardinal defense spots it right away. They've got Austin running to the right side, which is loaded up with defenders as it is. Usually end-arounds go the other way. He would have had the tackle and another receiver to block down field, especially since the defense shifted the other way.

2-11-ARZ 23 (9:57) (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete short right to T.Austin

This is the last target for Austin. He goes to the deep middle, but Bradford gets pushed out of the pocket. He tried to make the throw as he chugged over to the sideline, but the defense had it covered.

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Thoughts

  • The offense is going to have to block better with plays designed for Austin. There's the end-around and the pass with a confused Zac Stacy that came up short in part because of blocking. This goes back to Ben Muth's point about specialty plays that require blocking assignments outside the norm. It's easier for defenses to read and stop, and it's also harder for the blockers because they're executing blocks they don't usually run. That also means more practice time devoted to those plays as opposed to the standard playbook. Think of Austin in the trips formation for a tunnel screen instead of the monstrosity we saw.
  • Changing up the plays at the line would be helpful too. The end-around looked like a mess from the start with the defenders concentrated on that side of the field.
  • The defense had a really good read on Tavon, especially for plays where he came across the formation. Defenses are always going to have a man on him, be it in zone or man coverage, but there were times when it sure looked like the Arizona defense knew what was coming.
  • Speaking of that, Bradford had a tendency to stare down Austin when he came across the formation. The defense picked up on that.
  • Getting Austin in space is the main thing here. His best plays came with him going into the middle part of the field, between the hashmarks. When he was targeted outside the numbers, he was sandwiched between a defensive back, usually an equally fast Tyrann Mathieu, and the sideline. That left him with no room to maneuver around his man.
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