CINCINNATI -- At first glance it may look like Teryl Austin has a tough act to follow as the Bengals' new defensive coordinator.
After all, Paul Guenther left for a better offer to be defensive coordinator in Oakland with Jon Gruden. The man Guenther followed, Mike Zimmer, rode his success with the Bengals to the head coaching job with the Minnesota Vikings.
And the defense had a much better 2017 than the offense.
But the numbers have slipped over the last three seasons. The Bengals went from second in points allowed in 2015 to eighth in 2016 to 16th in 2017.
While Marvin Lewis would have welcomed Guenther back, a fresh look can’t hurt, particularly as the team continues to work younger players into the lineup.
Austin says his defense will be “aggressive.” He explained what that means.
“Being aggressive on defense is we’re going to try to play on their side of the line of scrimmage,” Austin said. “We're going to play without fear. We’re going to play really physical and strong. I guess that’s what I mean by aggressive.
“We’re not going to sit back and let someone dictate what we do. That’s what I mean with aggressive.”
Aggressiveness, some would argue, has hurt the Bengals on defense, i.e. Vontaze Burfict’s numerous suspensions for hits and Pacman Jones’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Austin doesn’t want that.
“To me aggressive is not fighting and talking and the other stuff,” he said. “It’s how you play the game, and that’s what I want our people to see.’
Detroit’s numbers in 2017 indicate they were more aggressive than the Bengals. The Lions forced 32 turnovers, third most in the NFL. The Bengals forced 14, tied for 30th in the NFL. Detroit had 47 sacks, seventh in the NFL. The Bengals had 40, 13th in the NFL.
Austin said turnovers don’t just happen.
“It’s like anything else in coaching,” Austin said. “You kind of get what you emphasize. Our first year, we were really good. We fell back a year. Then we talked about it and tried to emphasize it. This past offseason, I kind of dove into it, making sure we emphasized it, made sure we ran more takeaways drills. We kept that going throughout the entire year. I think it paid off.
“They saw tangible results early and they built off of that. That’s why we able to get as many turnovers as we did.”
The statistic Austin emphasizes most? Wins and losses.
“A lot of times people make a thing: ‘Are you ranked this and you ranked this?’” Austin said. "All I care about is how many times we can help our offensive team win the game. That’s really what I’m most concerned about.”
Austin was Lewis’ choice as soon as he heard Guenther may be leaving -- well, actually before that. The Bengals played the Detroit Lions, where Austin had been defensive coordinator since 2014, in the second-to-last game this season.
“I told him to stay in touch,’ Lewis said.
Lewis and Austin are both from the Pittsburgh area.
“Western Pa. guys, that’s what we grew up with,” Austin said. “It wasn’t baseball. It wasn’t basketball. Football is what we love to do.”
While familiarity and friendship had a lot to do with Austin’s hire, it also was important that he’s been coaching in a 4-3 scheme like the Bengals use.
“I thought it was important to have somebody that we could stay within our structure, with the personnel we had returning that we didn’t have to make a drastic change,” Lewis said. “Not have our players have to re-learn the wheel.”
Austin was looking for the same thing.
“You want to get somewhere where you don’t have to overhaul things,” Austin said. “When we went to Detroit, I came out of Baltimore based on (3-4) under front. We went there and they had a 4-3 front and had a lot of good players. What I did was adapted and tried to use the players to the best of their ability. That first year was really strong.
“You don’t want to go in where you overhaul the system and get different types of the players and try to change everything around. I think this will be a smooth transition moving forward.”
Austin was not hired to rebuild. The players are in place to have a successful defense in 2018. He knows that.
“There’s good talent here,” Austin said. “It’s my job to make sure that talent performs on the field.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.