New Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin takes over a group that has a solid foundation but is in need of some upgrades.
With elite players at each level with defensive tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and emerging star cornerback William Jackson, Austin inherits a more talented group than he left behind in Detroit, where he was the defensive coordinator for four seasons.
Here are five things Austin needs to address and/or fix to return the Bengals to a top-tier defense.
Setting the staff
It’s interesting that the Bengals re-signed defensive line coach Jacob Burney and linebackers coach Jim Haslett before hiring Austin as the defensive coordinator.
That means the only say Austin will have in setting his staff is in the secondary, where Kevin Coyle has served as defensive backs coach the last two seasons in his second stint with the team (he also coached in the Cincinnati secondary from 2001-11).
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Coyle, who shared the role of secondary coach with Robert Livingston, is not expected to return. But the Bengals are high on Livingston, and Austin will have a say in who gets the job – or jobs.
In Detroit, Austin had separate coaches for the cornerbacks (Tony Oden) and safeties (Alan Williams). If the Bengals allow him to continue that structure, they could retain Livingston and still give Austin the chance to hand pick at least one assistant, perhaps bringing either Oden or Williams south once Detroit settles on its next head coach.
Plan a path
In addition to the three unrestricted free agents on defense – middle linebacker Kevin Minter, defensive tackle Pat Sims and defensive end Chris Smith – Austin will have some decisions to make with a couple of other aging veterans.
Cornerback Adam Jones and defensive end Michael Johnson are signed through 2018, but both players are showing signs of age and have younger, more talented players.
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The Bengals don’t typically cut players of Jones’ and Johnson’s stature before their contracts end, but there have been incremental shifts in philosophy the last years and this could be the latest with a nudge from Austin.
Paul Guenther’s defenses the last four years were among the league’s best at limiting points and yards, but the Bengals have slid to the bottom of the rankings in turnovers forced.
Only the 0-16 Cleveland Browns had fewer takeaways (13) than the 14 the Bengals had in 2017. The 14 turnovers were the fewest in the history of the Bengals franchise, four less than the previous mark of 18 set in 1994.
The Bengals forced 20 in 2016 (tied for 20th).
Austin’s 2017 defense excelled at taking away the ball, as the Lions tied for third with 32 turnovers in 2017. In his first season as coordinator in 2014, Detroit was tied for ninth with 27 takeaways, although the production dipped in his middle years (tied for 27th with 14 in 2016; tied for 25th with 18 in 2015).
Part of the reason the Bengals ranked so low in turnovers was their defensive philosophy, which was more conservative than aggressive with a lot of soft zones and rare blitzes.
The point was to force teams to sustain long drives and convert multiple third downs in order to reach the end zone, but too many times there were communication breakdowns that led to big plays.
The Bengals allowed 27 pass plays of at least 25 yards in 2017, including eight of at least 40 yards.
Austin’s background as a secondary coach should help reduce those, and if not, he can at least offset them with aggression that leads to more sacks and turnovers.
Equally as damaging as the big plays down the field were the easy ones with running back and tight ends running free through the middle of the Bengals defense.
Part of it can be attributed to a linebacker corps that was decimated by injuries, with opening-day starters Nick Vigil, Kevin Minter and Vontaze Burfict combining to miss 18 games.
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That left the Bengals with Vinny Rey and three rookies, sixth-round pick Jordan Evans and undrafted free agents Hardy Nickerson and Brandon Bell.
Adding depth and solidifying the scheme to take away the easy crosses and seams should be an emphasis for Austin.