by Mike Ridley
So this is what Tavon Austin’s potential looks like.
Austin, the eighth overall pick by the Rams this April, hadn’t lived up to his draft slot entering Sunday’s contest. Despite having 31 catches and two touchdowns, Austin came into the game owning the league’s second-worst DYAR (-76) and fourth-worst DVOA (31.6%).
Like most rookie wide receivers, Austin has often failed to make an impact on a weekly basis. There have been four games he has failed to eclipse two receptions, including a zero-catch performance last week against Tennessee. When he has caught the ball, it has usually been for minimal game; St. Louis' preference to use the diminutive Austin on wide receiver screens and quick throws has netted the rookie just 6.7 yards per reception, worst among all qualifying receivers.
On Sunday, we finally got a sneak peek into the havoc Austin can wreak when used properly. Despite touching the ball just eight times in the game, the rookie out of West Virginia accumulated 314 all-purpose yards, including three touchdowns of 55 yards or more. That made him just the third person to accomplish such a feat. The first touchdown, a 98-yard punt return, showed Austin's burst when he quickly accelerated past the Colts coverage unit running up the sideline practically untouched. His second demonstrated his top-end speed, burning Vontae Davis on a fly route. The third displayed how dangerous Austin can be in the open field. After starting in motion, the Rams used a pick to free up Austin on a drag route, allowing him to catch the ball in space and weave through two defenders on his way to an 81-yard touchdown.
While Austin's performance grabbed the headlines, the real credit for the victory likely lies with the defensive line. Robert Quinn and his cohorts consistently harassed Andrew Luck, throwing the MVP candidate off his game. Quinn set the tone early with his strip sack on Indy's opening drive that Chris Long returned for a touchdown. After Austin's three touchdowns staked the Rams to a 35-point lead, the front four pinned their ears back and went after Luck. The pressure helped force him into three second-half interceptions, tying a career high.
By the VOA
The Rams offense may not have been dominant, but their defense and special teams certainly were.
|Say "Car Ram-Rod"|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
The Rams offensive VOA is a product of their mediocrity when not hitting the homerun. Outside of Austin's two long offensive touchdowns, the Rams averaged just 4.4 yards per play and had four of their 12 drives result in three-and-outs. The defense got major points for stopping the Colts on four of their five possessions in the red zone, with three interceptions and a tackle of Luck on the six-inch line on fourth down.
Just Take a Knee
The Colts offensive and defensive VOAs resemble that of a team that lost by 30 points, but it's the special teams section that needs to be looked at more in depth.
A major portion of the Colts' poor special teams VOA, outside of the Austin return, came from how their returners handled kickoffs. David Reed and Dan Herron combined to have four returns fail to pass the 13-yard line, including two that were stopped at the 7-yard line. Not only does the poor field position put a team in greater threat of a safety, it also restricts the offense, making drives more likely to stall out.
Aaron Schatz mentioned in Audibles how being greedy in kick returns isn't always a great gamble. Reed, who returned three of the four kickoffs in question, has a season-long return of just 39 yards and is averaging less than 25 yards per return. The return by Herron was the first of the running back's career. With neither having a track record for big play ability (Reed did have a return touchdown in 2010, but has returned kicks in only 16 games since), they would be wise to realize that the safe play is often the correct play.
Trent Richardson 4.0
To be honest, I'm not sure what version we're calling the latest Trent Richardson. I do know it's completely ineffective. Yesterday saw the former Browns back carry the ball five times for a whopping two yards. In his seven games with the Colts, he has failed to surpass so much as 60 rushing yards in a game and is averaging a miniscule 2.8 yards per carry, something only Ray Rice could be jealous of.
Richardson's ineffectiveness is particularly damning after the loss of Reggie Wayne. Pep Hamilton's system strives for an effective ground gain to achieve balance. With Richardson being below replacement level (-29 DYAR and -14.5% DVOA before Sunday), the Colts have become much more reliant on the passing game with receivers like Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill and Reed running a significant amount of routes. If Indy is going to get back to the offensive balance it used to beat teams like San Francisco and Denver, it needs Richardson to provide an efficient run game more than ever.
Robert Quinn, Defensive Player of the Year?
Hidden in one of America's great baseball cities, Robert Quinn has been terrorizing opposing offenses all season. Quinn, who had a career year in 2012 with 10.5 sacks, has been putting on a clinic so far this season. With 12.0 sacks (and a league-leading 98 yards lost), he spearheads a defensive line that is among the best in the league.
In 2010, the year before the Rams drafted Quinn with the 14th overall pick, St. Louis had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 7.1 percent. During his rookie season, they improved to 7.5 percent, eighth in the league. After finishing third with an ASR of 8.5 percent in 2012, the Rams ascended to a league-leading10.1 percent ASR, besting the more-praised pass rush of the Kansas City Chiefs by a half-percent. Additionally, the Rams line ranks third in Adjusted Line Yards, a metric used to determine the effectiveness of defensive lines against the run.
It would be foolish the say the Rams haven’t added other quality players like William Hayes, Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers during the last three years, but those players are working off Quinn, not the other way around.