By Howard Balzer for KSDK Sports
Three things the Rams must do to win ... (We'll skip run offense and defense because that's too obvious!)
1. Create productive plays for Tavon Austin.
The much-ballyhooed rookie has yet to make a large impact. He leads the team with 20 receptions, but for only 124 yards (6.2-yard average) and a long of 14. On four running plays, he has just 10 yards, and 13 punt returns have produced just 42. That equates to 37 touches for 176 yards, only 4.8 per touch.
Asked about Austin, quarterback Sam Bradford said, "I think positive reinforcement goes a long way with anyone, especially those young guys. Obviously, Tavon is an extremely talented player. He's a really good football player. He's being asked to do some things right now that he's probably not used to. In West Virginia, everything ran through him. He probably never left a game without eight to 10 touches. So, this is a little bit different for him, but we've got to keep him going because there are things that he does really well and he's going to help us."
Coach Jeff Fisher also commented on what has to happen to get Austin going. Said Fisher, "What we've got to do is we've got to get the run after catch. We've got to get him in position to where he's got a chance to make somebody miss and go. That's just a matter of continuing to work on things and maybe experiment with some different things."
2. Make sure Jacksonville's receivers don't make big plays.
Like Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Justin Blackmon missed the first four games while on a league suspension. Unlike Dunbar, Blackmon wasn't released and he was able to be at the team facility because his violation was within the league substance-abuse policy. Last season as a rookie, Blackmon had 64 receptions for 865 yards (13.5-yard average) with five touchdowns, one of which was for 81 yards.
The Rams are shaky at cornerback with Cortland Finnegan having struggled and missing practice this week because of a hamstring injury. In addition, cornerback Trumaine Johnson didn't practice this week because of a virus. Fisher said Johnson should be OK for the game, but added, "It's going to be a challenge for him particularly because he started feeling poorly over the weekend, so he really hasn't done much from a physical standpoint since last Thursday."
Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts III was more effective last season, averaging 17.8 yards per catch and scoring seven touchdowns, with Blackmon present. This season, without Blackmon, Shorts is averaging 13.0 yards with no touchdowns and he has been bothered by a groin injury.
Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton said of Blackmon, "They're going to feature him. He's a good player. He's a very good football player. They're going to move him around. They're going to get him the ball. That makes them more balanced. They have (Jones-) Drew running the ball and then now with moving Blackmon around, we have to make sure we're on our game. We have to take care of him in passing situations."
As for Shorts, Walton said, "Good route runner and has good hands. He's a good guy coming out of his breaks. They move him around also, but he's been playing the backside 'X' some, but he also will get in the slot and move him around. He does a nice job of catching the football and understands coverages, so he knows how to break his routes off and sit down and do things like that. When the quarterback has time, he gets him the ball."
3. Be productive on third down.
Offensively, the Rams have converted 25.9 percent of their third-down plays, the second-worst percentage in the league. In the last two games, they are a woeful 4-for-30.
Said quarterback Sam Bradford, "There's been a lot of mistakes made in a variety of different areas. To convert third downs, it takes 11 guys doing the right thing. We haven't had that all the time. I think the biggest thing is keeping ourselves third-and-short, third-and-manageable. A lot of those third downs last week in the second half -- third-and-eight to 10 - everyone in the building knows what's coming. We're making it tough on ourselves."
Of course, there were two possessions in the first half against the 49ers where it was second-and-2, and the Rams failed to convert on two chances. The first resulted in a field goal after missed a wide open Austin Pettis on third-and-1, and on the second, Bradford threw an interception on third-and-1.
Generally, Bradford was correct. Not including a kneeldown at the end of the game, the Rams had 16 third downs and the yardage to go was eight yards or more 11 times. Seven times, it was 10 yards or more. In the second half, the average yards to go on third down was 9.7 and for the game, it was 8.5.
Fisher on cornerback Trumaine Johnson playing Sunday after fighting a virus for a week: "As I just mentioned to him, Walter Payton set the (then-) single-game rushing record with a 104-temperature against the Vikings (in 1977). The question is, does he know who Walter Payton is?"
Howard Balzer will be contributing to KSDK Sports throughout the 2013 season. Howard hosts PrimeTime Monday-Friday from 6-8 pm on CBS Sports 920. He is also a host on SiriusXM NFL radio and one of 44 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.