Can Detroit's New Defensive Coordinator Turn Around Shaky Secondary?
By Scott McMahon
It takes some guts for a team that is in as good a position as the Detroit Lions to give its defensive coordinator job to a guy who has only ever held the position in a collegiate program. That lack of experience clearly did not phase the Lions brass. GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Caldwell had plenty of defensive masterminds to choose from this offseason, but elected to go with Teryl Austin, whose only experience as a defensive coordinator came at the University of Florida in 2010. The risk is certainly there, as Austin’s play-calling experience may not be extensive, but the Lions are hopeful that the rest of their new defensive coordinator’s resume will speak for itself.
For those unfamiliar with Austin, he is in his ninth career coaching position - all of them coming on the defensive side of the football. Prior to his coaching career, Austin was a defensive back at the University of Pittsburgh and as a member of the Montreal Machine in 1991. His coaching has taken him to some of the most illustrious universities in the country - including the University of Michigan and Penn State - as well as several stops in the NFL. Also worth noting is the fact that with his three previous positions in the NFL - with the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens - Austin reached the Super Bowl each time.
Austin heads to Detroit with Caldwell, who was hired as the Lions head coach in January. The two coaches are well acquainted, as Austin and Caldwell both served at Penn State and Wake Forest in the early 1990s, and were reunited in Baltimore when Caldwell joined the Ravens coaching staff as the quarterbacks coach in 2012. The two know each other’s style very well from their years together, which should help bridge the gap between the Jim Schwartz reign to Caldwell’s.
Austin’s primary task in his first year under Caldwell in Detroit will be to change the culture of the Lions defense, and to improve a secondary that struggled mightily in 2013. He is lucky to have inherited a solid front seven that dominated opposing running games last season, and will certainly build off of the strong foundation of Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy and company. Austin’s biggest challenge, though, will be instilling confidence back into a secondary that underperformed consistently throughout the second half of 2013.
Looking at Austin’s track record for just a few seconds immediately suggests that among the biggest changes coming to the secondary - and really, the defense as a whole - will be the unit’s overall aggressiveness. In his four seasons in Seattle, the Seahawks defense forced an average of nearly 28 turnovers per season and ranked in the top half of the NFL in three out of four years. With Arizona, the defense averaged slightly over 29 turnovers in Austin’s three years. His teams in Baltimore scored 25 takeaways per year from 2011-2013, and although their interception numbers weren’t great, the Ravens dealt with injuries and aging players in the secondary for much of Austin’s tenure.
To put this into some perspective, let’s take a look at the Lions defense under Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham over the past five seasons. The Lions averaged 25 takeaways over Cunningham’s five years running the defense, but over the past two years, they only managed to force 39 turnovers total. In four of those five seasons, Detroit picked off 15 or fewer passes and ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in team interceptions. Over the past two seasons, the defense only intercepted 26 total passes, which ranked 24th in the league during that span.
In short, the secondary will likely be playing with a more aggressive attitude under Austin. Quite frankly, Cunningham’s system didn’t seem to work very well, so bringing in a new emphasis on toughness and risk taking could be exactly what Detroit's defensive backs need to revive their confidence.
Austin’s background and style also has a clear endorsement from the Lions front office, especially Mayhew, who has not seemed to express much concern about the team’s secondary all offseason. Further evidence of Mayhew’s confidence in Austin came during the three days of the NFL Draft in May, when the Lions selected just once defensive back - CB Nevin Lawson - in the fourth round. Mayhew clearly believes in both his new defensive coordinator and his returning secondary after a horrific season defending the pass in 2013.
However, with Darius Slay looking like the potential top cornerback, Rashean Mathis returning to provide veteran leadership, and a new safety combination of Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo that has already begun gelling, Austin may be able to turn around the Lions secondary in 2014. Confidence and a solid track record can go a long way for a coaching staff and its players, and the Lions are hoping the combination can bring the team back to the playoffs this season.