By Jim Thomas Thomas



Tavon Austin said his early exit from the locker room Sunday afternoon had nothing to do with what happened during the Jacksonville game.

“I definitely wasn’t frustrated,” Austin said. “I just got up and left. My family was outside. I wasn’t frustrated at all. We got the win, so that’s all that matters.”

On a day in which he had three punt returns (for 81 yards) called back because of penalties and also dropped two passes, Austin left without talking to reporters and still was wearing eye-black.

“That’s how the game goes,” Austin said, when asked about seeing return after return called back by penalty. “You’ve just got to keep on pushing. These are my teammates, and hopefully it’ll get better next time.”

As each week goes by, Austin seems more comfortable returning punts and has flirted with several big returns, including one that would’ve been an 84-yard return against Dallas. But then come the flags.

“The only thing that matters is that my team, they keep on trying,” Austin said, speaking of the punt return unit. “That’s all that matters to me. We’re definitely getting better at it. We’ve just got to keep working and keep drawing up good schemes, and hopefully our plays can get bigger and bigger.”

And actually count.

Obviously, there were huge expectations for Austin when the Rams traded up to the No. 8 overall spot to draft the multi-purpose threat from West Virginia. He showed flashes — exciting flashes — of what he could do during training camp and the preseason.

And he would be among the NFL leaders in punt returns were it not for the flags. But when it comes to playing receiver, the going has been tougher.

Austin does lead all NFL rookies in receptions with 23. Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, whom the Rams considered drafting and who plays for Sunday’s opponent — Houston — is second with 22. But Austin’s averaging only 6.8 yards per catch compared to Hopkins’ 13.3.

The Rams haven’t tried to throw many deep balls Austin’s way, although he did have a season-long 25-yard reception just before the 2-minute warning against Jacksonville. That play got the Rams in the red zone, and they went on to score a touchdown with 27 seconds left in the second quarter for a 24-10 halftime lead.

“It was a big catch and run in the hole on the far sideline,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “I thought he had one of his better games. He had the one drop on the little swing (pass) extension of our running game, but he made some plays.”

The Rams have tried a variety of quick passes or wide receiver screens to Austin all season, but none of have gained many yards.

“Pretty much I’ve just got to make somebody miss,” Austin said. “I just blame it on myself. Chris (Givens) and our wide receivers throw good blocks out there, so it’s just one-on-one out there, and hopefully I’ll make somebody miss and make a play.”

Austin’s yards-per-catch average hasn’t been great; it’s 3.7 according to Pro Football Focus. And he has dropped five passes, which is unusual because he had a reputation of being sure-handed in college.

“Certainly, he’ll get better with the drops,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said last week.

“He’s making progress,” quarterback Sam Bradford said Wednesday. “I think if you ask him, he’s probably frustrated right now. I know that his role in this offense is probably a little bit different than what he had pictured or what he’s used to at West Virginia.

“But I’ve been impressed with him. He continues to try to get better each week on the practice field. I’ve seen it. I think as long as he keeps pushing, eventually he will go into that role that he probably expected to be in.”

Namely, a role as a big-play threat and a go-to receiver.

Austin said all the right things when asked if he would like to run more deep routes, or run the ball more out of backfield.

“It’s all in the offense,” Austin said. “If they want me to run deep routes, I’ll run deep routes. If they want me to run short routes, that’s what I’ll do, too. Whatever helps the team.”

As for running the football more often?

“Like I said, it’s not really my call,” Austin said. “I’ve just gotta be ready whatever time my name is called. And that’s what I’m gonna do — keep working hard out at practice and hopefully my game becomes a lot better.”

With the Rams going with a lot of two- and three-tight end sets against Jacksonville as they emphasized the running game, Austin was on the field for only 23 offensive plays. That’s easily a season low, and by way of comparison, one play less than Brian Quick was on the field.

But Austin still had six passes thrown his way. He has been targeted a team-high 40 times in the passing game so far this season and has been first or second in number of times targeted in all five games. So it’s not like the Rams aren’t trying to get him the football.

Austin said he once felt pressure to make the big play, but adds: “That used to be in my ‘younger’ mind; I always tried to hit the bigger play. Now I’m starting to calm down and let the game come to me.”

Even so, Austin said “it’s just a matter of time” before the big plays start to happen. A few less penalties on special teams and they’d be happening already.

“These last 11 games, I’m gonna try my best to do a lot of great things,” he said.