Tavon Austin sets up Rams’ victory with big punt return

Rams punt returner Tavon Austin is pulled down by the facemask by Cardinals tight end Ifeanyi Momah, giving the Rams good field position for a fourth-quarter drive Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Tavon Austin provided the game-turning play during the Rams’ 17-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, returning a punt 47 yards to set up the winning touchdown at University of Phoenix Stadium.

With less than six minutes left, Austin anticipated that punter Ryan Quigley would “sky” the kick high — “like they’d been doing the whole game” — so that the coverage team could surround Austin and force him to signal for a fair catch.

But Austin said, “I looked up and he gave me one.”

Austin said he also noticed that Arizona special-teams standout Justin Bethel had fallen down.

“I knew that was the key,” Austin said. “We had some great blocks out there. I just did what I do best.”


Austin returned the punt to the Cardinals’ 30-yard line. A facemask penalty against Ifeanyi Momah moved the ball to the 19.

Five plays later, quarterback Case Keenum connected with receiver Brian Quick for the go-ahead touchdown.

Austin caught two passes for 14 yards and carried the ball once for a six-yard loss.

Winning is the thing

Todd Gurley couldn’t care less that the running game has struggled this season, he said, as long as the Rams continue to win.

Gurley, last season’s offensive rookie of the year, had 33 yards in 19 carries.

He has yet to break a run longer than 16 yards this season.

Against the Cardinals, he caught a career-high five passes for 49 yards, including a one-handed 33-yard reception in the third quarter, the longest of his career.

“I mean obviously the running game hasn’t been going as well but, you know, got a couple passes out of the back field, which was key and we got the win,” Gurley said.

Said Keenum: “Our run-action game, faking to Todd is a good play. People respect him and respect where he’s at.”

Fisher said Gurley was “really close” to breaking free on a couple of plays, including on a screen pass.


“We’re going to continue to do that, continue to work him,” Fisher said.

Sudden impact

It didn’t take Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines long to make a mark. Playing his first game in 21 months, Gaines, who missed 2015 because of a foot injury and the first three games of 2016 because of a thigh injury, entered Sunday in the second quarter with the Cardinals facing a third-and-nine from the Rams 12.

Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer hit David Johnson with a short pass over the middle, but Gaines, on his first play, tackled Johnson short of a first down, forcing the Cardinals to settle for a field goal.

“I was just trying to make a difference when I get in there,” Gaines said. “Words can’t explain how good it felt to be back out there with my brothers.”

Gaines played most of the second half and finished with six tackles, one assist and two passes defended, including a break-up of Palmer’s third-down toss into the end zone with four seconds left in the third quarter. Arizona settled for a field goal and a 13-10 lead.

“I thought I had it,” Gaines said of his near-interception. “I’m still kind of mad at myself that I didn’t.”


Ball control

Trumaine Johnson dove for an interception in the end zone in the second quarter and appeared to have another along the Cardinals sideline in the fourth.

The second play was overturned upon review (his heel was on the sideline), but Johnson had already distributed balls from both plays to his parents.

“I gave first ball to my dad,” Johnson said. “I always have a gang of family that comes to Arizona, and that second interception I gave to my mother.”

But the second interception was overturned.

“They’re not getting that ball back,” Johnson said. “That’s my mom’s. She’s taking that back to Stockton with her.


“Seriously, you all know that was a pick. Come on.”

Starting spot

Defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks started in place of William Hayes, who suffered an ankle injury in the Rams’ victory over Tampa Bay and did not play against the Cardinals.

Westbrooks returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown against the Buccaneers. Westbrooks made one tackle against the Cardinals.

Still waiting

Receivers Pharoh Cooper and Nelson Spruce practiced during the week but were inactive.

Cooper, a fourth-round pick from South Carolina, suffered a shoulder injury in the third exhibition against Denver. Spruce, an undrafted free agent, caught six passes, including a touchdown, in the exhibition opener against Dallas but suffered a knee injury.

Coty Sensabaugh, who started at corner in the first three games, also was inactive.

Times staff writers Gary Klein, Mike DiGiovanna and Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.