By Kent Lee Platte, DLD Contributor
It has been three years since Teryl Austin had his first and only shot as a Defensive Coordinator at the University of Florida. Lions fans area already aware that Austin was the Secondaries coach for the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens, and the basic assumption is that Austin would bring some of the defensive strategies and tendencies from the Ravens to the team. That’s a fair assumption, being that it is his most recent job in football, but I feel the best method to really see what Austin likes to do as a play caller is to look at what he did when he was actually calling plays.
To delve into that, I’ve went back to the 2010 Florida Gators and taken a look not only at the types of plays he likes to call but also the tendencies he used in coverage, blitzing, and general aggressiveness against various levels of competition. In doing so, I will address some of the rumors and perceptions Lions fans have about the type of defense they should expect to see in Detroit for 2014.
“He Prefers Man Coverage”
Gunther Cunningham’s defense ran on a very heavy dose of zone and Cover 2 philosophies. The basic concept in those situations being that pressure from the front four will prevent the need to blitz, which of course requires a defender to vacate coverage to rush the passer. While it’s true that Austin prefers man coverage by comparison to Cunningham, it isn’t quite to the level that many fans seem to think. Through the six games I was able to watch from 2010, Austin ran Man Coverage approximately 55% of the time. That’s hardly the vast majority many Lions fans had hoped for, but any kind of a majority is preferable to the constant zones they ran for the past few seasons. What was surprising to me is that he used man coverage in the same percentage of plays when he was blitzing and when he was not, without a slight uptick for either man or zone in either.
“FINALLY, we can do away with all the Off Coverages!”
“He Likes to Press”
If there was any sore spot that really stuck out amongst the Lions fan base last season regarding coverage, it was how far off the line Gunther Cunningham liked to play his corners. How frustrating it was to see the corners seven yards away from the LOS on 3rd and 2. Teryl Austin comes to Detroit with a good reputation of developing CBs who can press, and it is a deserved reputation. Possibly the best CB he coached in his career was Lardarius Webb in Baltimore and if there was one clear flaw in Webb’s game it was his lack of physicality at the line and inability to use proper technique when pressing. Under Austin’s tutelage, Webb overcame not only his technical issues but also being an undersized corner and actually became quite adept at playing in press. While that, by itself, is a good sign, how Austin played his Cornerbacks at Florida will not give many Lions fans warm and fuzzies.
Percentage of plays with at least one CB playing listed distance from the LOS:
|Off (6+ yards off the line)||
|Base(3-5 yards off the line)||
|Press (On or near the line)||
Austin played with at least one CB off the line 76% of the time. While he played with at least one corner on the line in press about 22% of the time, very rarely did those CBs actually press at the line and instead bailed. Redirecting wide receivers with physical corners was not a very big emphasis, with more attention being played to where the CBs were and how the coverage moved around. Sorry to say that Lions fans should probably resign themselves to seeing more Off Coverage under Teryl Austin’s defense.
“Austin Loves to Blitz!”
Happy to report this one is more than just a little bit true. Austin blitzed a frankly ridiculous by Lions standards 57% of the time in the games I watched. Most of his blitzes involved at least one LB blitzing (55% of plays involved one or more LBs rushing the passer). This included various types of blitzes, from either edge, up the gut, delay blitzes, and a few stunts. Although he did it sparingly, Austin’s CB blitzes were a thing of beauty. While it’s an intriguing thought, there’s also a part of his tendency to blitz that doesn’t get mentioned enough and that is the personnel limitations he faced at Florida. Despite the constant blitzing, Austin was rarely able to turn that into pressure or sacks, with a paltry 21 sacks in 2010.
The optimist in me likes to look at that as a result of the poor play from his players, as some of his blitzes were clearly the right call and the players just didn’t execute. For example, in one play against Georgia, he stunted both DTs inside and had two LBs come through the middle on crossing blitzes. That’s the right call against an inside run, which the play was, but the RB was able to cut right through and run in for a TD. The cautious part of me, however, has to take into account that very little of his blitzes turned into pressure and also that the “Live by the Blitz, Die by the Blitz” mentality was more than on display in several games.
“He is looking for a Pass Rushing LB”
What’s important to note about Austin’s scheme is that he blitzed EVERYBODY. The common theme for many fans is finding a 3-4 OLB and plugging them into the Sam spot and BOOM, pressure! While Austin’s scheme requires a significant amount of rushing from the edge by a LB, he required it from BOTH LBs on the outside and also required those LBs to rush from more than just the edge. The MLB in his scheme has to be extremely smart and the Lions are lucky to have someone like Tulloch. Most of the MLB blitzes were on delays which required the MLB to make reads before and after the snap and make split second decisions whether to rush or stay in coverage. I’m surprised there weren’t more situations where teams took advantage of that and played block and release with their TEs or RBs. I’m also surprised that more teams didn’t cut back across his formations, something that was fairly successful when it did happen. Because of those limitations, it is absolutely essential that all three of the Lions Linebackers be at least serviceable as pass rushers, but they must be Linebackers first and foremost.
What Does That All Mean for the Draft?
Martin Mayhew has always drafted players who fit what Jim Schwartz and his staff were trying to do from a schematic standpoint, targeting zone based corners and rangy, physical players who fit what they were trying to do. It’s likely we’ll see more of the same in this year’s draft, which means that the team is likely going to target Cornerbacks who can play in off coverage as well as both zone and man equally well. Primarily press corners, like MSU’s Darqueze Dennard or Utah’s Keith McGill, are likely poor fits for a scheme like Austin’s. Rangy guys who played Off in college like Bradley Roby or Justin Gilbert seem better fits, while a man/zone corner like Jason Verrett is another possibility. The ideal fit here would be someone like Kyle Fuller who played a lot of off coverage and seemed equally adept at both man and zone.
In terms of other defensive players, Austin liked to use his Safeties both in coverage and near the line, but had defined roles for both. I don’t think it changes the Lions draft strategy at that position with a defined FS and SS, but needing to upgrade either or both.
Linebacker will be a curious one since the skill set required is so broad. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are perfect fits for Austin’s defense, but will need to improve their blitzing abilities. I’m sure the Lions will pick up a Linebacker who can rush the passer in the draft, but it will be a player who is a Linebacker first and a Pass Rusher second, not the other way around. They likely aren’t looking solely at 3-4 OLBs to convert to Sam LBs, more likely they are looking at 4-3 guys they think they can mold.