For the first half of the 2013 season, Austin Pettis was one of the Rams' busiest receivers. Through eight games, Pettis was thrown to 45 times. Only tight end Jared Cook (50) and wide receiver Tavon Austin (49) were targeted more times at that point of the season.
At the halfway point of the season, Pettis already had established a career high for reception yards (284), matched his career high for touchdowns (four), and was just three catches shy of his career high in receptions.
But since that midway point of the season, Pettis' role in the offense has diminished greatly. Over the next five games -- from the Tennessee contest Nov. 3 through the second Arizona game Dec. 8 -- he was thrown to only 10 times with just three receptions.
Last Sunday against New Orleans, Pettis fell off the milk carton and back onto the field. He caught four passes from quarterback Kellen Clemens for 41 yards -- all in the first quarter.
"It was real nice to kind of get put back into the offense a little bit more," said Pettis, a third-year pro from Boise State. "Unfortunately, it's because we had an injury with Tavon. But I'm just glad that I was able to come in and make some plays to help the team."
Pettis helped start and finish the Rams' 93-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter against the Saints. On third-and-5 from the St. Louis 12, Pettis caught a nine-yard pass for a first down.
Five plays and two New Orleans penalties later, he caught a nine-yard pass to move the chains on third-and-9 from the Saints' 13. Tight end Lance Kendricks scored on the next play to give the Rams a 14-0 lead.
"I really enjoy those roles," Pettis said. "I know third downs are a big stat in this league and they translate a lot to wins and losses. So being able to come in in those scenarios and the coaches putting me back in the game to convert those is nice."
After a successful onside kick by Greg Zuerlein, Pettis helped get the Rams into scoring position with a 14-yard reception that became a 29-yard play when Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins was flagged for unnecessary roughness for his hit on Pettis. Three plays later, Zuerlein's 31-yard field goal gave the Rams a 17-0 lead and they never looked back in a 27-16 upset victory.
"I know my role has definitely been up and down a lot this year," Pettis said. "But just like the coaches have harped on, I'm just making sure that I'm always ready whenever that time comes. I've tried to do that to the best of my ability this year."
Pettis' playing time this season can be broken down into three distinct segments:
No. 1: Over the first four games, the Rams were a pass-first team, used plenty of three-wide receiver sets, and found themselves constantly playing from behind which meant lots of throws. Pettis didn't leave the field much. He was in for roughly 90 percent of the offensive plays.
No. 2: Following the first San Francisco game, the Rams switched to a run-first approach, using two and three tight ends much more frequently. That meant less reps to go around for the wideouts. Although still getting substantial playing time, Pettis was on the field about two-thirds of the time for the next four or five games.
No. 3: Rookie wide receiver Stedman Bailey was inserted into the wide receiver rotation starting with the Nov. 3 Tennessee contest. Bailey's playing time had to come at someone's expense. To a large degree that someone turned out to be Pettis. He's playing only about 25-30 percent of the time since Tennessee.
Pettis said the coaching staff has let him know what's going on every step of the way.
"We all understand the scenarios," Pettis said. "We've got a lot of great receivers, and people need to get in the game. It just was their turn to play, and I took the reserve role with it. I'm just trying to make the plays whenever they call my number."
All season long, it has been tough for the Rams to play more than four wide receivers, and that became especially true once the two- and three-tight end sets became more prevalent starting with Game 5 against Jacksonville.
"There's been a lot of changes going on," Pettis said. "The running game especially has been working very well. So obviously the passing game's been taking a little bit of a dip.
"But it's been successful for us. Everyone knows that in the receiver room. We'd rather win games than us all catch 10 passes. So if the game plan's for us to run the ball more, and that gives us a better chance to win, then we're all good with that."
The emergence of Bailey has made it tough for Pettis to crack the top four wide receivers. Austin's ankle injury provided a bit of a revival in playing time for Pettis last week against New Orleans. With Austin not practicing all this week, and listed as questionable, the same could hold true in Sunday's home finale against Tampa Bay.
But what about next season? With a year left on his original contract, will Pettis face a reduced role again in 2014. Or will he even be on the roster?
"I'm very optimistic," Pettis said. "We'll see what happens. I'm very happy as a Ram. I love all these guys that we have. We have a great receiver room, and hopefully we can stay together for a long time."
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