• By Jim Thomas

If they gave out MVP awards for spring football, Austin Pettis would have a shiny trophy sitting on his mantel at home.

The third-year wide receiver from Boise State seemed to be everywhere during the OTAs in May and June. He caught everything in sight, consistently gained separation, and beyond that, was constantly in the ear of the rookie receivers, drafted and undrafted. At age 25, he’s the most experienced wideout on the team, and he tried to help the youngsters when he could.

Then training camp hit, and Pettis’ play seemed to level out a bit. He still worked with the young wide receivers, but former Rams greats Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were around camp this summer and justifiably received a lot of attention for their work with the team’s pass-catchers.

And then the exhibition season hit. Pettis wasn’t targeted in the first two games and caught only two passes all preseason. There was speculation that before too long, the improving Brian Quick would nudge Pettis out of the starting lineup.

With all the buzz generated by draft picks Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, new tight end Jared Cook, and even second-year man Chris Givens, it was almost as if Pettis became an afterthought. But after a quiet opening day against Arizona (three catches for 16 yards), the Rams’ forgotten man emerged in a big way in Atlanta.

Pettis stepped off the milk carton to catch a career-high eight passes for a career-high 78 yards. The seventh of those eight receptions went for a 3-yard touchdown and made it a one-score game with 11 minutes 57 seconds left in a contest the Rams eventually lost 31-24.

“I think just the game plan we had, and the way that Atlanta planned for us, I was a little more of an option for Sam (Bradford),” Pettis said.

After the Falcons’ game, Pettis said he felt he was “a little more forgotten with all the weapons that we have. Fortunately for me, I was able to come up with a few catches in the game.”

The competitive fire in Pettis made him hungry to show he could play a role in the evolving Rams offense.

“Absolutely,” Pettis said. “I think that’s a good driving factor for anyone when you’re forgotten about, or with players on your own team. You just want to go out and compete, not only against the other team, but with your own teammates.

“That just makes everyone better. As you can see, we have a lot of weapons on this offense. There’s gonna be someone who gets the ball a little bit more than others every single game depending on what the defense gives us.”

Until the end of the third quarter, Pettis’ numbers were almost identical to what he posted in Week 1 — he had three catches for 18 yards. But when the Rams went to the hurry-up offense with 3:20 to go in the third, Pettis took off just like the rest of the receiver corps.

On the second play of the team’s first touchdown drive, he caught an 11-yard pass to get the Rams into Atlanta territory for the first time since the middle of the second quarter. He added a 20-yard catch three plays later.

On the Rams’ next series, he started the drive with an 18-yard catch and run, and he ended with the 3-yard TD. The Falcons went with an all-out blitz on the touchdown, sending eight pass-rushers.

“Our coaches did a great job scouting them,” Pettis said, when asked about the TD catch. “We knew a pretty good ‘tell’ of what they were going to do to us in the red zone. They put us in position to make a few plays, and on that play (the Falcons) played man just like the coaches had told us when we worked on it in practice. The play worked better than we could’ve expected.”

Pettis is not exceptional when it comes to yards after the catch, but on his four grabs during those two TD drives, 25 of the 52 yards gained came after catching the ball.

“It was really good to get ‘AP’ back involved,” Bradford said. “He had a great spring. He had a great camp. Unfortunately, we just haven’t been able to get him the ball as much as he probably deserves. So it was nice to see him have the day that he did have.”

Pettis and Bradford seemed to develop a chemistry as the 2012 season progressed, with Pettis grabbing a red zone TD pass in each of the last two games. It looks like that chemistry was re-established in the Georgia Dome.

“He’s as solid a receiver as we have on this team,” Bradford said. “He’s so versatile, we’re able to do so many things with him. We can put him inside, outside. He’s got great releases. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him.”

And Pettis has regained some confidence in himself.

“This was a good game for me confidence-wise, knowing that I’m still a big part of this offense and there’s still plays called for me to help this offense move the ball,” he said.

SAFFOLD SIDELINED

Rams right tackle Rodger Saffold will be sidelined for two or three weeks because of an MCL injury to his left knee, league sources told the Post-Dispatch. Injuries to the medial collateral ligament do not require surgery but can take a month or so to heal.

Saffold has been playing well this season, but the Rams have confidence that backup Joe Barksdale can get the job done.