In a division known for delivering the hard knocks, expect a heavy dose of speed to factor into tomorrow’s outcome between the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams. This cannot be a game that is overlooked by the 49ers, with recent statements by tight end Vernon Davis lending credence to a boost in confidence with the return of super star wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
With cornerback Tarell Brown missing his second-straight game, the luminary Tramaine Brock and the steady Carlos Rogers are forced to pick up the slack in a secondary that has played well beyond expectations this season. They have a run-in with an emerging star tomorrow, as Rams’ wide receiver/return specialist Tavon Austin has flashed his unrivaled talent over the past four weeks.
Austin has scored four touchdowns of 50+ yards in his last two games, with the Rams finally figuring out a way for their uber-talented rookie from West Virginia to produce. Give the kid some space, run a gimmick play or two, then sit back and ogle at his dynamic ability.
Suffice to say, Rogers will have his hands full tomorrow as the Rams will look to keep Austin on the torrid pace that has finally rationalized the Rams’ decision to move up and select him with the eighth-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
In the 49ers’ week four drubbing of the Rams (35-11), Austin was held to just six yards on two receptions. Much of that can be contributed to the play of Rogers. Unknown to the masses, Rogers is the fifth-best cover corner in the NFL when working against the slot receiver. The Rams will use Austin in the slot and put him in motion to dictate coverage, with the 49ers countering with one-on-one coverage by Rogers.
We know that Carlos can and will hold his own, but what will really stop the Rams’ implementation of Austin? It has and always will start up front for the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers will be blitzing like madmen against the Rams, testing quarterback Kellen Clemens on every down. Clemens is little more than a game manager (a term every 49er fan is aware of) and is afraid of crippling his teams hopes with a turnover, only having two interceptions over four starts.
Unlike most quarterbacks, Clemens actually gets worse when given more time to release the ball. When being forced to throw within a 2.5 second window, Clemens boasts a QBR of 91.9. When given more than 2.6 seconds, Clemens drops almost 20 points, boasting a QBR of 72.8. Point being, Clemens likes to get rid of the ball quickly, and will have Austin in his sights against a defense that is firing on all cylinders. When Austin is targeted, his quarterback has a rating of 108.4. His 35 catches have been a large variety of screens and slants, calling for these high figures by his signal-caller.
Austin has not displayed the ability to make tough catches in traffic, leading one to believe that the 49ers will press hard at the line, offering protection in the form of Eric Reid or Donte Whitner over the top. Communication and speed are how you defend Austin, with the 49ers more than capable in both facets.
Austin will have to produce on the outside against the 49ers, as going over the middle is a scary thought with Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman looking to make you their lunch. Don’t expect more than 20-yards receiving for Austin tomorrow.
On special teams, the 49ers have done their homework and are emphatically ready to stop the explosive Austin. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is aware of his talent, but is thoroughly prepared, stating just as much to Bill Williamson of ESPNGO.com:
They’ve done a very good job because he’s got all of those abilities,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Speed, quickness, the return game. They’ve done an excellent job of using all of his skills. Trying to setup middle returns and bounce into sideline returns. Misdirection in the return game. I think they also use middle returns. They use the wide variety that reflects his skills and that’s a huge challenge for our coverage units.
The 49ers know that every game from here forward is a must win. Allowing the slippery Austin space to beat you can and will not happen. The 49ers are focused, and I thoroughly expect Austin to have one of his worst games of the season tomorrow, being suffocated by the incredible 49ers defense.