New Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin meets the media Friday in Allen Park. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — It didn’t take long for new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to touch on what may be one of his biggest challenges next season.
Asked during his introductory press conference Friday about his early impressions of the Lions’ roster, Austin said, “When you look at it, you have some difference-makers up front, obviously, in Ndamukong (Suh). Nick Fairley, when he’s on top of his game, boy, he’s really good. I mean really good.”
When he’s on top of his game.
Austin already has been made aware of the talented tease that Fairley has been during his first three seasons in Detroit. So good when he’s on, so invisible when he’s not.
“Our goal is we want to make sure with our guys that we give them the opportunity to play the best that they can all the time,” said Austin, 48, who spent the last three seasons coaching the defensive backs in Baltimore. “We have to figure out how we can motivate, how we can get him to do that. Whatever it is that touches him that makes him do that, that’s what we have to find out.”
Fairley started a career-best 15 games, but produced just 4.5 sacks, most coming in the final six weeks of the season. In his first two seasons, he played in 23 of 32 games with seven starts.
“Obviously, we haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk about all those things or do those things with Nick, but the time will come for that,” Austin said. “I think that we’ll do whatever we can to try and help him be more successful because he can be a really dominant player. We just have to have him try and be a dominant player for 16 games. That’s really our goal.”
Austin has met with Suh, and though he said they talked very little about football, he came away impressed and encouraged.
“The one thing I can tell from talking to the guy is he really wants to win,” Austin said. “I think that’s really the most important thing. It’s not so much if he goes to the Pro Bowl or he does this and that. I think that he really and truly wants to be part of a winner. So, that’s good. That’s what you want.”
Austin was asked about his methods of discipline and how he held players accountable for repeated on-field mistakes.
“If you tolerate them, then they’ll keep making them,” he said. “If he continues to make the same mistakes, I always tell them, ‘You can come sit by me. You can come stand by me.’ Guys don’t want that because I’m on the sideline.
“If a guy continues to make the same mistake, then what we do is we say, ‘Hey, listen. You obviously aren’t doing the things we need you to do for the team. You can come stand by me for a while until you figure out how to do this right.’”
Austin said neither draft status, size of contract nor role on the team mattered when it came to staying consistent with that method.
“The one thing you learn, once you get here, it doesn’t matter when you were drafted. You have to perform,” he said. “Performance is the most important thing in this league. I mean, we signed guys that were free agents — Corey Graham (in Baltimore) played in front of a first-rounder, Jimmy Smith, for a year. He started in front of him because he was better than Jimmy at the time.
“I think as a player, when you come in the locker room, if you know that the best guys are going to play, not the guy that was drafted ahead of you just because he was drafted, you’ll have a better locker room and you’ll cut down on some of those mistakes.”
Praise for Slay
As he studied tape from last year, Austin said he was intrigued by rookie cornerback Darius Slay.
“I looked at him and you go, ‘Boy, he had his ups and downs,” he said. “He had some growing pains. There were some times he didn’t look very good and there were some times he looked outstanding. Our goal is to try to get him to be consistent, to be a consistent player.”
Slay reminded Austin of another young cornerback he nurtured in Baltimore.
“Jimmy Smith, drafted in the first round,” Austin said. “Jimmy didn’t become a full-time player until this year. He was a lot like Darius. He kind of flashed and has some tremendous talent. He would flash, but he didn’t quite play as consistently as you’d like.
“But then finally, like a lot of them, sometimes it just clicks. It takes reps and it takes time and when it does, he starts improving in certain areas and everything else picks up. That’s the thing. We’ll work on Darius. He’s got a lot of talent and he’s got a lot of room to improve. Hopefully the improvement will show and he’ll be able to play an important part for us this year.”
System and philosophy
Austin, who comes from a 3-4 scheme in Baltimore, reiterated that he would maintain the Lions’ 4-3 foundation. But unlike how the Lions played the last five years, he hopes to have a better balance between a four-man rush and blitzes.
“It’s like anything, you can’t pressure all day and you can’t just play four-man all day,” he said. “So, we’ll try to mix those things up and I think what it will do in the end of it, it will give our four-man guys a little bit better rush because the (opponent) knows it’s not always four and they won’t be getting chipped all the time because there’s a threat of somebody else coming.”
Former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham found it difficult to blitz because of the inability of the defensive backs to cover man-to-man. Austin understands.
“Obviously, if we are going to pressure, we’ve got to be able to cover them in the back and give our guys some time to get home,” he said. “We’ll work on those things. We’ll kind of iron those things out and see what’s best for us as we move forward, but I can promise you this. We won’t be blitzing every play and we won’t be four-man rushing every play.”
… Austin listed former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr among the coaches who helped mentor him in his career. “Working with Lloyd was one of the highlights of when I coached in college,” said Austin, who was an assistant at Michigan from 1999-2002. “I love talking to Lloyd. He’s always got a good story for me. I might have heard them a few times, but he’s always got a good story for me.”
… New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has some local ties, too. His wife was born in Bay City and his father was once the general manager of the Michigan Panthers. “I remember being a ball boy for the Michigan Panthers back in the USFL days, you know, watching Anthony Carter and Bobby Hebert throwing the ball around,” he said.
… Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. “I knew when I became a coach that no matter how well I did, I was never going to be Vince Lombardi,” he said. “So, I don’t have that pressure hanging over my head. I’m just going to try to be the best Joe Lombardi I can.”