You have to give the Bengals credit for being more proactive than usual this week. After setting a dubious record for allowing the most yards in a four-game stretch, Cincinnati and head coach Marvin Lewis made the difficult decision to fire defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Lewis has decided to take over the play-calling duties on that side of the ball, which was probably their best option at this point in the season. Additionally, Lewis brought in old friend Hue Jackson to be an assistant to the staff.
Have you caught up, yet?
Even though Lewis beings some stability to the defensive room, there are both pros and cons to his usurping the lion’s share of the duties. Let’s have a look:
Playing to his previous strengths: Unless you’ve been living under a bomb shelter the past 20 years, or were born after 2003, you probably know that Lewis was the architect of one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. He cut his teeth with the Steelers, Ravens and Redskins, respectively, subsequently earning the “defensive guru” moniker.
Oddly enough, throughout most of his tenure with the Bengals, Lewis’ teams have been known for explosive offenses with big-name skill position players and not necessarily the defense. It will be interesting to see what Lewis draws up for the final seven games, but he’ll at least be doing something for which he built his NFL reputation.
Simplifying things: If you were to read Albert Breer’s Monday column at MMQB, you’d get a little bit more insight as to what some of the issues with Austin and the defensive unit were over these past 10 weeks.
“Beyond that, those in the building saw Austin as a guy who put too much volume in too quickly and was too reactionary on a week-to-week basis, which kept the unit from developing an identity,” Breer reported.
An anonymous team staffer also called the situation with Austin and the Bengals’ players “a disaster,” so all in all, it’s a good thing Austin was relieved of his duties. There’s also this ditty from Vontaze Burfict after the crushing loss to the Steelers that points issues with Austin:
At any rate, Lewis sounds confident in his future plans with the defense and we should see improvement. After all, the long-tenured head coach is very familiar with all of the guys on that side of the ball.
Heck, it can’t get much worse than it’s been, right?
Hue Jackson pitching in: Just as some expected, the former Cleveland Browns head coach is returning to Cincinnati as special assistant to the head coach. The prevailing thought is that Jackson will help out with smaller details in multiple facets of the team while Lewis focuses on fixing the defense.
In some senses, this is a sage strategy. For one, Jackson is intimately familiar with the Bengals, Lewis and many of the veterans on the team. Even though Jackson’s reputation has been dragged through the mud since his firing, being on the same page with the staff and players is huge after a terrible 1-3 slide over the past four games.
2002: Simply put, this is the last time Lewis was a defensive coordinator. He was with Washington at the time after building the defensive dynasty in Baltimore.
For a franchise long-criticized for its lack of innovative operating practices, it’s hard to believe that Lewis will draw up a dominant defense 16 seasons after he last headed a unit. He’ll likely bring improvement, but how much improvement can we really expect in the middle of the season?
2004: Old friend Joe Reedy pointed this gem out from Lewis’ last stint as a defensive play-caller:
Lewis yanked the responsibilities from then-coordinator Leslie Frazier, as the 2004 Bengals’ defense was performing poorly. The unit didn’t fare much better the rest of the way and Lewis moved on to Chuck Bresnahan the following season.
As we mentioned above, Cincinnati isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of things. Can Lewis use the somewhat-passé 4-3 base defense (yes, they line up in nickel often) to success going forward?
Still having too much on his plate: Will Jackson bring enough to balance everything out the rest of the year? As folks around these parts can attest, Lewis has had overall game management issues in the past. And now you want to add even more in-game responsibilities for him to juggle?
Look, we don’t mean to make Lewis sound completely inept because his record and what he’s done with the Bengals clearly show otherwise. Still, his teams focusing on some of the finer details hasn’t been one of their strengths.
Granted, there weren’t many viable options for him to lean on aside from Jim Haslett, as going outside at this juncture would be an impossibility. Still, Lewis will be an even busier guy these next two months.
Personnel issues linger: Even if Lewis has some sort of magic wand, there are still some glaring holes on this defense. The eventual returns of linebackers Nick Vigil and Vontaze Burfict will help, but even they showed some ups and downs this year.
In the games against elite teams, Cincinnati’s defense has completely failed to generate pressure and create turnovers. In fact, against the Steelers, Chiefs and Saints, Cincinnati’s defense netted just two sacks and one interception in those three games combined. It’s no coincidence that they went 0-3 in those contests.
The good news is that there is talent on the unit. They employ three first round corners, a future Hall of fame defensive tackle and a multi-Pro Bowl defensive end in Carlos Dunlap. Nevertheless, Lewis will need to find a formula for the unit to cover backs and tight ends more effectively.
Hue Jackson’s arrival: There are positives to Jackson’s addition to the staff, but even so, this is a guy who is 11-41-1 as an NFL head coach. How much respect and leverage does he have with the players on this team?
Sarcastically-speaking, can he play tight end? Linebacker? These seem to be some of the more pressing needs at this point.
Lewis has an apparent vision, and for some, the Jackson signing may show a spark. While cautious optimism is the route to take with the news, this could be a move that will either pay off in a big way, or provide little help.
Is simpler better?: As we noted above, it appears that Austin’s main issues were information overload and failing to keep to a recognizable semblance of a scheme. Lewis will undoubtedly go back to some concepts from Mike Zimmer and/or Paul Guenther to get his unit using its instincts and reacting instead of thinking too much.
Still, some of the best defenses in the league are diverse and mix up their blitz looks. While Lewis did just that at the turn of the century with the Ravens, there is concern about the modernity he will bring to this unit.