CINCINNATI -- If the players in the Cincinnati Bengals locker room didn’t already feel a sense of urgency to get things turned around, they do now.
Head coach Marvin Lewis fired first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on Monday, following the team’s 51-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The ouster sent a message that the defensive struggles this season will no longer be tolerated.
The Saints scored on their first nine drives and finished with 509 yards of offense, as the Bengals became the first team in the Super Bowl era to give up 500 yards in three consecutive games. They are allowing a league-worst 454.6 yards per game, rank 31st in scoring defense (32.0 points per game) and have lost three of the last four games.
Lewis will assume play-calling duties, a role he previously held with the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens prior to becoming Cincinnati’s head coach in 2003.
“It wakes you up,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “There's a sense of urgency -- we want to be a great defense. We've been a great defense for a long time now, and they want to get back to that now because we still have an opportunity to control what we can control. We're still right in the mix of everything, and if we fix it now we can do what we want to do, not that that was the sole issue because he's not out there playing football. We have things we need to fix as well, but that's the move they made.”
Lewis said the change was necessary in order to give the players the best chance to win games. Cincinnati (5-4) currently sits in line for the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture with a crucial division game against Baltimore looming Sunday on the road.
The Bengals beat the Ravens in Week 2, and Baltimore’s offense continues to flounder, so it’s an opportunity to turn things around right away.
“With the move I made today, it’s very unfortunate,” Lewis said in his press conference Monday afternoon. “Teryl has worked really hard here, but I just felt like we had to rock their world, shake things up a bit. It’s important where we are to try to get this done and it’s our chance to do it right now.”
Dunlap said the players were surprised at the news. Lewis didn’t sugarcoat his message to them either.
“There's nothing comforting about what happened this morning,” Dunlap said. “We don't want anybody to be comfortable. We want guys to be on the edge of their seats, challenge everyone to do better. As players we can control what we can control, and that's playing better.”
Things got so bad Sunday that Lewis actually gathered the defensive players up at one point and missed some plays on offense while trying to make some corrections. Austin worked out of the booth, and Lewis said the players’ demeanor on the sideline gave him the sense they needed someone to address them personally. He hadn’t done that in previous games.
It was probably clear then that a change was needed, but Lewis said he told players after the game Sunday to look at themselves before pointing fingers, and everyone is to blame. The message was the same Monday during a team meeting that extended 10 minutes beyond the time he had allotted for it.
“We had to make a change,” Lewis said. “Everybody in this building is responsible for that change. We are all part of it, so first thing you do is change coaches and the next thing is change players, so we look at them as well. We have to right our ship.”
Dunlap said he couldn’t say if the move was necessary or not, but it was clear something had to change. No one can really pinpoint the reasons for the defense’s struggles and Austin likely wasn’t the sole cause.
Rookie free safety Jessie Bates said “it kind of sucks,” but the move just shows how bad things are going.
“Anytime anyone in this locker room or on the staff leaves, it's not what we want,” Bates said. “Obviously something is going bad or we're not doing something very well, so we just have to fix it. We have a lot of games left and we have everything we want to accomplish that we still can do.
“We're not going to say it's our fault for him getting fired, but like I said we're not playing well, so something had to change and unfortunately he had to get fired.”
Lewis wouldn’t say whether he had considered a move before the bye, which preceded Sunday’s game, but he felt he was the one responsible for making things right.
Austin, who before coming to Cincinnati had spent the previous four years as defensive coordinator for Detroit, tried to change things up in recent weeks. He added some three-safety packages Sunday and assigned cornerbacks to receivers in the previous game, a 37-34 win over Tampa Bay in which the Buccaneers turned the ball over four times and still managed more than 500 yards.
However, none of that seemed to make much difference.
“We don’t have to change schematically,” Lewis said. “We just have to change things we’re doing and make sure the players have great understanding. I’m responsible ultimately for everything that goes on. I just felt I’d be letting everyone down, the fans down, everyone down if we continued down this road.”