It is a little unusual for a team not to start its No. 1 wide receiver, especially when it was that team’s top draft choice, but then Tavon Austin is a little unusual.
The St. Louis Rams traded up eight draft spots to make Austin the eight pick of the 2013 first round, which itself is a little unusual anyway when the player is 5-8. But Austin has exploded on the NFL with a modest 33 receptions that have produced four touchdowns, a TD rate already equal to that of Brandon Marshall and Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson.
He flashed in the Rams’ 38-8 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts, with TD catches covering 57 and 81 yards in addition to a punt return score of 98 yards (one can only speculate the reaction of Rams special teams staff at their guy fielding a punt at the St. Louis 2-yard line).
Then again, “he’s been making plays all year,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher. “I think he was just noticed by others in the Indy game. But he had a punt return for a touchdown against the Cowboys called back. And he’s had numerous other good, solid returns that were called back, a touchdown pass called back against Carolina. So, he’s been making plays.”
The problem for the Bears is that Austin is not the only problem facing the defense, even with backup Kellen Clemens completing a pedestrian 53.5 percent of his passes.
Tight end Jared Cook, on the Bears’ free-agency radar last offseason before leaving Tennessee for the Rams, is tied with Austin’s 33 catches and is averaging 13 yards per catch.
The Bears have had at least one interception in nine of their 10 games. Cornerback Zackary Bowman is coming off a game in which he drew three defensive flags and a fine for a horse-collar tackle and nickel back Isaiah Frey will play with a fractured hand.
“We expect [Bowman] to go out there and do his job to the best of his ability,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “No more, no less.”
What to look for: The Bears placed special emphasis this week on directional punting and kick coverage, with the end game being keeping Austin contained and forcing the Rams into field position requiring extended drives for scores. That will involve more than just special teams.
“Certainly field position will be a big factor in how we kick to him and making sure he’s not a difference maker in the game,” said coach Marc Trestman. “So we got to be really good on offense to make sure that if we do have to give the ball back to their offense that we put the ball in the right place and back them up.”