The Redskins have a number of matchups to be concerned about Sunday. Atop that list is Rams returner Tavon Austin vs. their beleaguered punt coverage team.
“Obviously,” Coach Jay Gruden said, “you want to give [Austin] as limited [an] amount of touches as you can. He’s going to get his on offense; we can’t control that. But we can control what he gets on special teams.”
Austin claimed NFC special teams player of the week honors after returning a punt 75 yards for a score in the Rams’ 34-31 overtime win over the Seahawks last Sunday. It was Austin’s third punt return for a touchdown in three seasons, a streak that includes his 78-yarder at FedEx Field last December, which capped a humbling 24-0 loss for the home team.
The Redskins, meantime, continue to struggle on punt and kick coverage. Last week, Jarvis Landry returned a punt 69 yards for a score to lift the Dolphins to a 17-10 victory in Landover, Md. The decisive touchdown marked the 10th special teams score Washington has yielded since 2012. In case you’re not sure, that’s a lot.
And Austin, a 5-foot-8 native of Baltimore, has the speed, shiftiness and instincts to make it 11—if the Redskins, who have lost top special teamers Adam Hayward and Niles Paul to season-ending injuries, make the mistake of giving him ball with time and space.
“That’s something we’ve talking about in the special teams meetings [and is] something that Tress Way is very aware of,” Gruden added. “We have our plan going into this game to try to limit his touches, that’s for sure.”
Rams Coach Jeff Fisher indicated that he expects opponents to punt away from Austin, who ranked fifth in average yards per punt return last season (11.2).
“He has such great acceleration and vision,” Fisher said in a conference call the local reporters this week. “It separates him from a lot of returners in the league. …He is the first player in NFL history to have, in each of his first three years, a return for touchdown over 75 yards. That kind of speaks for itself. We expect people to put the ball in the boundary, or not give him a chance to return.”
Which would make solid sense on Sunday, given Austin's ability and the Redskins' reoccurring breakdowns.