THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- It was two Thursdays ago, at the 12-minute mark of the fourth quarter from Levi's Stadium. Tavon Austin, lined up on the outside, came in motion, providing the threat of a jet sweep along the right side. Jared Goff took the snap just as Austin sprinted past him, but instead pitched it to Todd Gurley, who went left with the football, saw a big hole and sprinted up the field for an easy 29-yard gain.
Austin has played only 29 offensive snaps through the Los Angeles Rams' first three games, but he's making a pretty significant impact as a decoy.
Without the threat of Austin's jet sweeps, Gurley wouldn't have reached 100 yards on the ground against the San Francisco 49ers and probably wouldn't have become the NFC's Offensive Player of the Month.
"That definitely helped me a lot," Gurley said. "Without Tavon, that’s the extra defender being there, or extra two defenders being there."
Gurley has gained 57 yards on seven carries when Austin comes in motion for a potential jet sweep. That's 8.1 yards per carry in those situations, compared with 3.3 yards per carry when Austin is not streaking through the backfield.
"It might not show up on the stat sheet, but he's contributing in a lot of ways that goes unnoticed," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "It certainly doesn't in our building."
In the Rams' thrilling, 41-39 win over the division-rival 49ers on Sept. 21, Gurley took six handoffs to the left that could've also gone to Austin darting toward the right sideline. Five of those Gurley runs went for at least four yards, with one gaining 10 and another gaining 29. Let's examine the latter two plays. The first came at the three-minute mark of the first quarter.
Take a look at the pre-snap position of the middle linebacker and the right outside linebacker, circled in this image.
Now look at where they end up once they see that Austin could get the ball and sprint to the right, and the hole it opens for Gurley on the left.
The effect on the longer run was a little more subtle. Austin coming in motion prompted the outside corner and slot corner to inch a little bit closer to the ball.
When the pitch went to Gurley on their side of the field, they were in bad position to pursue, creating a gaping hole for Gurley to run through.
"A lot of times you talk about keeping your gap integrity as a defense, and it's predicated on where guys are aligned," McVay explained. "When you're flying a guy fast across the field, it causes some conflicts in your run fits and guys get out of gaps, or they're looking at it or you might regulate some different things that you're doing. A lot of it is predicated on what the defensive call is and how you want to defend it, but it does give you some different things to look at. You don't know if it's coming, and there's some complements off that."
Gurley gained 113 yards on the ground in that game, snapping a 20-game streak without amassing triple-digit rushing yards. He leads the NFC with 381 yards from scrimmage and has already scored six touchdowns, tying his total from 16 games last season.
Austin, however, is still waiting to produce with the ball in his hands.
The fifth-year receiver costs nearly $15 million toward this year's salary cap, but has only 40 scrimmage yards on nine touches and has already mishandled a couple of punts. Austin thought he scored a touchdown in that Thursday night game when he took a jet sweep and ran nine yards to the outside. But replay ruled that he was down at the 1-yard line.
“I might not be producing that much with the ball in my hands, but my fakes, my jet sweeps, it’s doing numbers, and that's the main thing about it," said Austin, who cleared concussion protocol in time to play in Sunday's road game against the Dallas Cowboys. "I’m not really a ‘me’ guy. I know what I can do, and I know what I’m going to do eventually. I just have to get back in the swing of things, and I’ll be all right.”