Rams running back Todd Gurley has been getting much of the national attention for his breakout rookie season – and rightly so. After missing the first two games while recovering from a torn ACL, in the four full games he has played, Gurley has rushed 94 times for 575 yards and three touchdowns – a pace that would see him rush for 2,300 yards over a 16-game season.
It reminds a lot of players and coaches of the kind of immediate impact Adrian Peterson made in the league, but, like A.P., he had a supporting cast around him that was capable of making big plays. The Rams have such a player in wide receiver Tavon Austin.
In his third NFL season, Austin, whom the Rams traded up in the first round to select with the eighth pick of the 2013 draft, it appears to all be coming together. Used as a wide receiver, running back and punt returner, Austin is the Swiss Army knife of the Rams offense and, while the focus of the defensive game plan centers on slowing down Gurley’s record-setting rushing pace, keeping Austin under wraps may be just as important.
“He’s definitely explosive,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who will likely line up most often against Austin in the slot. “When the guy gets the ball in his hands, he can take it the distance. He’s got the speed, he’s got the quickness, he’s got the ability to take the ball to the end zone any time he touches it. We’ve got to be a great tackling team this week.”
Austin was viewed as a borderline bust, especially for the eighth overall pick in the draft that cost the Rams a harvest of draft picks. The Rams moved up from No. 18 to No. 8 to land Austin, receiving the Buffalo Bills’ first-round pick (No. 8) and third-round pick (No. 71) for the Rams’ first-round pick (No. 18), second-rounder (No. 46), third-rounder (No. 78) and seventh-rounder (No. 222).
He came with a price and, while he flashed explosiveness his first two seasons, he didn’t produce the kind of numbers that were expected from a top-10 draft pick. In 29 games in his first two seasons, he caught 71 passes for 660 yards and scored nine touchdowns – four receiving, three rushing and two on punt returns.
In his third season, like so many other NFL wide receivers, it would seem as though a light has gone on. He leads the team with 24 receptions for 284 yards, has rushed 17 times for 141 yards and has scored seven touchdowns in seven games – four as a receiver, two as a rusher and one as a punt returner.
If not for Gurley, he would be in line to be the Rams’ midseason MVP. Austin reminds Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway of the kind of multi-faceted contribution Percy Harvin made for the Vikings early in his career as a game-breaker.
“He reminds you a little of what we did with Percy when he was here,” Greenway said. “He’s certainly explosive. They use him on bubble screens to get him the ball in space with the ball, tossing him the ball, handing it off to him sometimes. He’s a great athlete and a guy that, when the ball is in his hands, he’s very dangerous.”
What may have attributed to Austin’s rise in production is that the Rams finally have stability at quarterback. As a rookie in 2013, he only had seven games with starter Sam Bradford and the remainder of the season with journeyman Kellen Clemens. Last year, his time was spent with pedestrian quarterback Austin Davis and current Vikings backup Shaun Hill.
With the strong-armed Nick Foles able to get the ball deep and throw every pass on the route tree, the threat of Gurley running the ball opens defenses up for play-action and the deep threats the Rams provide on offense.
“Oh, man, Nick Foles has a strong arm,” Munnerlyn said. “He can throw the ball all over the field. We feel like he can make every throw. They take their shots downfield with Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt and a lot of other receivers. They’re doing a great job offensively.”
Austin’s explosiveness has been on display all season long. In the six games, he has had at least one rushing attempt, he has had a run of 12 yards or more in all of them. He has a pair of games with more than 95 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown reception last week and had a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against Seattle in the regular season opener.
Gurley may be grabbing all the headlines, but if the Vikings are going to beat the Rams Sunday, keeping Austin from doing what he has done so often during the 2015 season – making the big play that changes the complexion of a game – will be critical.
The Vikings lead the NFL in fewest missed tackles and a player like Austin will make that a premium assignment this week – a challenge the Vikings are ready to accept.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on defensively, being a great tackling team,” Munnerlyn said. “If a guy catches the ball on you, you have to be able to get him down now. That’s what we try to do.”