Niyo: Austin's Lions defense under the gun

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Teryl Austin

Allen Park — Jim Caldwell all but wrote the epitaph for the 2015 Lions campaign after their season opener.

His team had just given up 30 unanswered points in a deflating loss to a Chargers team that would finish 4-12. Philip Rivers dissected Detroit’s defense with a mix of screen passes and underneath crossing routes, finishing 34-for-41 for 403 yards. And when it was over, the Lions coach summed it up by saying, “we didn’t do a good job of reacting.”

No, they didn’t. Or they wouldn’t. And for a team that already was hampered by a dangerous mix of injuries and complacency — coming off an 11-win season and a rare playoff berth — that was a common thread as the Lions came unraveled in a disastrous 1-7 start.

A defense that had been one of the league’s best the year before — a ferocious unit built around Ndamukong Suh — suddenly turned feeble last fall. By midseason, the Lions ranked last in points allowed, and 31st in run defense and opposing quarterback rating. In the words of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, “we started like crap.”

From there, the schedule lightened and Austin’s unit came to life — the Lions posted top-10 numbers in several defensive categories in the second half — but the damage was done. A 6-2 finish couldn’t erase what came before it, and for Austin, a head coach-in-waiting entering his third season in charge of the defense, it certainly left a mark.

“When we don’t perform well that comes back on me, so I learned a lot of different things about our guys in terms of their character when things did get tough,” Austin said. “But I also learned for me, sometimes I might have to be a little bit sooner to make some changes, make some adjustments, instead of letting some things work themselves out like I do sometimes.”

Stuck to his guns

A reluctance to make changes — from the top down — probably left some people out of work in Allen Park last season, as Caldwell stuck to his guns with his offensive staff until he was finally forced to pull the trigger, firing coordinator Joe Lombardi and two other assistants.

Austin, too, was forced to make some personnel changes at that point, and when he talks about patience not always being a virtue in his line of work, that’s what he’s referencing.

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Starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, a veteran coming off an ACL injury, played nearly every snap in that opening loss at San Diego a year ago, and the Chargers spent the entire second half exploiting it. After that game, Tulloch, released by the Lions this offseason, was mostly relegated to a two-down role.

But it wasn’t until Week 8 that veteran safety James Ihedigbo — a player who’d followed Austin to Detroit from Baltimore — lost his starting job in the secondary. Linebacker Travis Lewis didn’t play another snap after that overseas debacle against the Chiefs, either, as Tahir Whitehead finally got a chance to start after the ensuing bye week. (The 81 snaps he played in the Week 10 win at Green Bay were more than the number he played in the season’s first five games combined.)

A reluctance to play some other young players who’ll be regulars this fall — including defensive end Devin Taylor and cornerbacks Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs — also may have been a blind spot.

“I have some patience, I want guys to work through some problems,” Austin said. “I don’t want guys to think every time they do something bad they’re coming out. … But what I learned was, at some point, maybe I’ve got to change and do some things a little bit faster.”

The Lions certainly understand the importance of a fast start. And particularly for the defense, the 7-2 springboard in 2014 felt completely different than last year’s 1-7 pratfall.

“That stuff comes with winning,” safety Glover Quin said. “You have that feeling like, ‘OK, we’re playing well,’ and your confidence, your identity, your swagger — all those things — kind of grow.”

Banged-up Colts

Sunday, then, is a chance to plant a seed as well as make a statement. Certainly, the opportunity is there against a banged-up Colts team plagued by serious protection issues.

Indianapolis used five quarterbacks last season, allowing 118 quarterback hits — second-most in the NFL — while losing Andrew Luck after seven games with a lacerated kidney. Luck will be taking snaps from a rookie center (Ryan Kelly) flanked by two inexperienced guards.

“I’m concerned like any fan out there,” Colts owner Jim Irsay acknowledged Tuesday, speaking to reporters at a charity event. “I think we can get it stabilized, but … until we prove otherwise, we’re going to be tested every play.”

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Health, for a change, isn’t an issue for the Lions, who began last season without star linebacker DeAndre Levy and with Haloti Ngata, the run-stuffing replacement for Suh, battling a nagging hamstring injury.

Austin wouldn’t use that as an excuse for last year’s stumbles, yet Quin all but promised better results this time around “because when guys are healthy, they’re not missing practice time — and practice time is where you work.”

And as the other Quinn — new general manager Bob Quinn — already has shown in his first eight months on the job, working quickly to cut bait on some of his own free-agent acquisitions, among other decisions, there’s no sense waiting around.

“We’ve worked way too hard,” Ziggy Ansah said, “just to start sloppy.”

With everyone under the gun in Allen Park this fall, they all know the reaction times will have to be faster.

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