Bengals fans haven’t been shouting from the rooftops with glee in response to the team hiring former Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin as the next defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
But from what I can tell, fans should be excited about an established and up-and-coming coach with tons of potential for the long-term.
Rebecca Toback: Bengals fans seem bummed about this hire. Should they be?
Jeremy Reisman: I wouldn’t be. He is a highly regarded coach both in his own locker room and across the league. Ever since Austin’s fantastic year as a coordinator in 2014, his named has continually popped up as one of the up-and-coming candidates to become a head coach. Part of that is because of how well he connects with his players, but he has proven it with results, as well. Before the Lions’ defensive roster imploded after the 2014 season, Austin was the orchestrator of the No. 3 defense in DVOA in 2014. Mind you, this was after a near-identical roster ranked just 14th in DVOA under defensive-minded head coach Jim Schwartz.
RT: What are Austin’s biggest strengths as a coach?
JR: Aside from his excellent leadership abilities, Austin’s impact has been most felt in the secondary. That’s where he got his start in the NFL way back in 2003 as the Seahawks defensive backs coach, and that’s where it has paid the most dividends for the Lions. He managed to squeeze the last successful years out of Rashean Mathis, he turned Glover Quin into a Pro Bowler, and most importantly, he made Darius Slay an first-team All-Pro talent. If you give Teryl Austin some young talent in the secondary, he’ll mold them into a top-tier starter in a season or two.
RT: How about any areas of weakness the Lions’ defenses have displayed under his watch?
JR: Austin can be a little stiff in his ways, and if he doesn’t have the talent that fits his system, he’s not going to play to that player’s strength. Take, for example, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a solid pass-rushing linebacker who the Lions mind-numbingly drafted in the second round in 2014. It’s not Austin’s fault the team drafted someone that didn’t fit his 4-3 system, but he stubbornly tried to convert Van Noy into a more traditional 4-3 coverage linebacker and it never worked out. Two years later, the Lions traded Van Noy away for a sixth-round pick, and now he’s thriving in New England.
Austin also has a nasty tendency of dropping defensive linemen into coverage, even if they are ill-equipped to do so. It’s part of Austin’s brilliant defensive mind and disguised coverages, but sometimes he was a little too clever for his own good.
RT: Why has Austin received so many head coach interviews but not gotten a gig?
JR: That’s a hard question to ask without being in the room during these interviews. Any time Austin gets a head coaching interview, the Rooney Rule undoubtedly comes up, but that’s not what’s happening here.
Austin is a legit head coach candidate. If I had to guess, it’s that Austin just isn’t all that exciting of a candidate. He doesn’t have a jump-out-of-your-seat personality, his defensive schemes—while effective--aren’t exactly groundbreaking, and he’s been stuck with poor personnel in Detroit for the past three years.
RT: What was the general conception held by Lions fans in regards to Austin?
JR: You’d think after three years of below-average defense that fans would be glad to see Austin leave town, but that’s absolutely not the case. We just polled fans to see if they believed Austin’s four years in Detroit were a success, and 60 percent of fans actually said yes.
I’d say about half are sad to see him go and half are ready to move onto a new, likely defensive-minded head coach. Of the latter group, most just want to see a new scheme in place. But nearly everyone respects the hell out of the guy.
RT: You guys have a lot of defensive free agents about to hit the market (Ezekiel Ansah, Tahir Whitehead, Paul Worrilow and Tavon Wilson to name a few). Could you see Austin going after any of his guys to bring them to Cincinnati?
JR: I don’t expect the Lions to let Ezekiel Ansah go, considering their lack of pass rushers on the roster. However, Tahir Whitehead and Tavon Wilson are two names I would definitely look out for. Whitehead has had an up-and-down career with the Lions and Detroit just drafted two linebackers with their first four picks in 2017. Austin knows him well and definitely likes the guy.
Wilson played well this year, and may earn another contract with the Lions, but Detroit is also deep in the secondary. Seeing as Austin thrives at developing defensive back talent, I could certainly see Cincinnati make a run at the veteran strong safety.
RT: Reflecting over the four years Austin was with the Lions, what would you say was his greatest contribution to the Lions defense?
JR: It has to be transforming the Lions’ secondary into a ball-hawking machine. After the year in which Ndamukong Suh left in free agency, the Lions were devoid of any play-makers on defense. In 2015, the Lions ranked 26th in takeaways. In 2016, they were 28th.
But thanks to the development of Darius Slay and the deep bench behind him--as developed by Austin--the Lions jumped to third in the league in 2017. Darius Slay, who only had six interceptions in his three-year career coming into 2017, ended up leading the league with eight this season.
RT: Obviously losing someone like Suh will have an impact on any defense. Are there other reasons you would you speculate why the Lions defense progressively dropped from second in 2014 to 27th in 2017?
JR: It really has to do with the talent up front. Not only did Austin lose Suh in 2014, but he also lost Nick Fairley, James Ihedigbo, and DeAndre Levy. Levy was perhaps the biggest blow to this defense outside of Suh. He was just coming into his own and becoming one of the most feared linebackers in the league, but after a myriad of mysterious injuries, Levy only played in five more games after that 2014 season. Austin’s best remaining player on the front seven, Ezekiel Ansah, has been similarly plagued by injuries and is only now finally recovering from them.
Without a pass rush or any starting-level talent at linebacker, Austin had a poor hand dealt to him. The Lions are just now replenishing their talent on that side of the ball, and that’s why I would have loved to see him stick around for one more year.
RT: Under Austin, did your linebackers sit in their zones a lot or are they more aggressive in coverage?
JR: Austin really mixed things up with the linebackers, likely in an effort to find something that works with a low talent level. I’d say he stuck with man-to-man more often than zone with the linebackers, but he didn’t shy away from either. Austin wasn’t afraid to send linebackers blitzing quite often, seeing as the Lions had issues with the pass rush after 2014. However, he usually preferred to send someone from the secondary instead.
Thanks so much to Jeremy for taking the time to talk about Austin. Now, what do you have to say Bengals fans. Are you any more excited now about this hire?